Man jumping between cliffs representing skills gap

How digital learning can defeat the skills gap

The skills gap. Schools and universities are blamed for it, the rise of tech is said to multiply it, and individuals are told to learn new skills – fast. In the workplace, digital learning and performance support tools can make new skills acquisition faster, increase productivity and leave time for innovation and creative thinking. So why isn’t everyone doing it?

One thing is clear: there is a mismatch between the skills workers possess and those that they need. As employers and employees alike struggle to bridge this gap, alternative forms of education and on-the-go learning are being thrown around as a quick way to seize fates and build a bridge toward secure and effective work.

While well-intentioned, these initiatives often miss the bigger picture. It’s not just that workers are being badly prepared for the world of work, or that they lack the motivation to try coding (though both may sound familiar). The fact is, reality itself is changing faster than anyone can keep track of.

Technological change is advancing at an unprecedented pace. The world feels smaller and moves faster. Our relationship to work is radically different than it was twenty years ago, and working remotely is a popular alternative, as is becoming self-employed. People of all kinds are working more zero-hour, short-hours or part-time contracts while union membership continues to fall.

For better or worse, the world of work is changing beneath our feet. Bridging the skills gap that has been created is a question of adapting to change and learning new skills. And what better way to do that than through digital learning?

Turn to face the strange

We all have an inherent capacity to adapt. If thrown into the deep end, most of us will find a way to stay afloat. But growth, rather than mere survival, calls on more than just instinct. It needs nurture.

When done right, learning is one of the best forms of nurture we have at our disposal. It gives people tools to act in the world and offers new perspectives. This can be provided by teachers in schools, by mentors and colleagues, but also through digital learning experiences.

And of course, let’s not forget the best teacher any of us have ever had: experience. Because the truth is, real learning cannot be rushed. We need room for failure. We need to confront unfamiliar, uncomfortable situations that push us to create new roadmaps. This takes time.

Given that time is precious, an important question to stop and reflect on is, where should learning efforts be concentrated? As technological change accelerates, it creates struggles but also opportunities. It can shift our view of workers from keepers of knowledge to keepers of skills. To seize this opportunity, we need to strengthen soft, transferable skills with an added value less likely to be superseded by technology.

Value My Skills

As an Instructional designer at Saffron, I have been working on a digital card game project: ‘Value My Skills’. This tool, launched by the TUC in collaboration with the Rainbow Years project and UnionLearn (TUC’s learning and skills organisation) will help workers of age 50 and above to reflect on their skills as they continue to move through their working life.

The Value My Skills tool is based on a card game used by UnionLearn representatives to spark conversation by inviting users to take stock of the valuable skills they have gained over the years and choose skills to build on or discover. The game then gets them ready to set concrete goals to improve their careers or take things in a new direction, for example by starting a new business or transitioning to retirement. It also acknowledges the fact that learning has a life-long use. Everyone, especially older workers, have a wealth of experience to draw from which they haven’t necessarily learned to reflect on and draw from.

The average working age is increasing as people live longer and retire later in life. At the same time, the days of spending your career in one field or one office is gone. Along with the constant pressure to adapt to changes in the market, this creates a demand for learning as a life-long process. According to the World Economic Forum, making the most of this shift while mitigating its costs “requires attention not just from policy-makers, but also coherent responses from companies to find win-win solutions for workers and for their bottom line.”

The tide is high, but I’m holding on

What Value My Skills creates is an opportunity. It gives people the time to stop, plan and take deliberate action that is tailored to their specific abilities and goals.

Importantly, the tool is tied to a larger support system and learners are not expected to go at it alone. They are instead invited to seek out and lean on any number of resources, including their union. Workers will need initiative and drive to fill the gap in their learning; but as much as possible, they also need solid ground to land on. Workplaces can help provide this by making space for the learning process.

The Value My Skills tool is only the beginning of a long journey. On the other end, both workers and employers will need to invest real time and effort into building a skillset. While employers may understandably want this process to take place as quickly as possible, good learning takes deliberate practice and regular attention.

The difficulty now lies in continuously building, refining and redefining the long-term skills employers need at pace without sacrificing the quality and depth of what is being learned. Step forward learning and development departments. There is a wealth of digital solutions to help embed learning, extend it into the workplace and help with deliberate practise to hone skills.

Saffron’s Saffbot, for example, helps with critical thinking and analysis, whilst Saffron eaSe helps with everyday processes and systems knowledge, helping to increase time to competence and allow creativity and time to build essential skills. Learning departments need to re-design their strategies to take account of these kinds of tools and take up the torch to lead their organisations into the new digital age.