Skills for innovation

Visiting scholar, Harvard/ MIT/Wharton; Vice-Chair, Education Committee of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC); Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board

Charles Fadel ©OECD

As technology progresses, so do labour market needs. For economies today, maintaining competitiveness means that skills must adapt and keep pace. 

Little more than a decade into the 21st century, the world is facing economic, societal and personal challenges in the form of globalisation, climate change and volatile employment markets. These challenges are testing governments and threatening people’s confidence in the future. Meanwhile, exponential growth in technology is rapidly compounding problems, aggravating social disruptions in many countries and localities throughout the developed and developing worlds.

Labour market needs are rapidly evolving. In survey after survey, employers indicate that they wish to find and hire employees capable of mastering not only content, but skills as well. New patterns of global labour are emerging as routine work in more developed countries is either automated or offshored to less developed and lower-wage countries, and even non-routine specialised work like legal research and microchip design leaves developed countries.

Work by Princeton University economist Alan Blinder has shown that between 22 and 29% of US jobs are potentially offshorable, representing some 30-40 million jobs. These are impersonally-delivered jobs, such as those of call centre operators on the low-wage end and scientists on the highwage end, as opposed to personally-delivered jobs, ranging from janitors and child care workers on the low end to surgeons and CEOs on the high end.

Combining Blinder’s work delivery distinctions (enabled by communication and transportation technologies) with the routine versus non-routine task divisions of Levy, Murnane and Autor (enabled by computing technologies) results in the four faces of future work.

The two types of impersonally-delivered work, routine and non-routine, are leaving developed countries. Routine impersonal work (like call centre operators and accountants), easily offshored now, continue to go to the lowest qualified global bidders. Similarly, non-routine impersonal work (like medical pathologists and legal analysts) are becoming more offshorable as specialised skills advance in lower-wage countries and communication technologies improve.

On the other hand, the two types of personally-delivered work, routine and non-routine, do not tend to go offshore. Routine personal work (like taxi drivers and child care workers) remains onshore but continues to receive low wages, rising when the supply of workers drops (with tighter immigration policies, for example), when services are enhanced with new technologies and higher-skilled workers, or when low wages are supplemented by government programmes. Finally, non-routine personal work (like surgeons and CEOs) will probably remain onshore for the long haul, depending on how quickly technology innovations like telepresence, telemedicine, robotics, artificial intelligence and intelligent self-service facilities become widely adopted.

No matter what the long-term future may bring, nearly every country has to deal with some sort of workforce disruption or adjustment, from high unemployment and underemployment to growing demands for new education and career preparation programmes that are more in tune with the new realities of a new age.

So how can education systems adapt? Education is falling behind the technology curve, as it did during the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, the world of the 21st century bears little resemblance to that of the late 1800s, so education curricula are overdue for a major redesign. Curricula worldwide have been tweaked, of course, sometimes to a large extent, but have never been deeply redesigned for knowledge and skills.

Knowledge must be relevant. Students’ lack of motivation, and often disengagement, reflects the inability of education systems to connect the content to the real world. This is critically important to economic and societal needs. We must rethink the significance and applicability of what is taught, and strike a far better balance between the conceptual and the practical.

Skills, on the other hand, are necessary to obtain education outcomes. Higher-order skills (“21st century skills”) such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are essential both for work performance and for absorption of knowledge. As noted by the OECD in its 2009 publication Learning for Jobs: “school learning is abstract, theoretical and organised by disciplines while work is concrete, specific to the task, and organised by problems and projects.” There is a good global consensus on what the necessary skills are, and how teaching methods via projects can enable skills acquisition.

Of all skills, creativity holds a special place, as it is a precursor to innovation. At the country as well as the organisation level, the two have become the recognised hope for solving both employability and societal crises. It is no surprise that the 14 “grand challenges” identified by the US National Academy of Sciences all relate to innovations such as energy, information and communications technology, health, and most interestingly, personalised learning.

On the employability front, expecting employment to come solely from large, established companies is unrealistic, as most employment growth is happening, in aggregate, in small and medium-sized enterprises. Even within large companies, employees are expected to innovate to justify their employment. Entrepreneurship and “intrapreneurship” are the natural engine for economic growth. Increasingly, workers will have to create their own employment, either within, or outside, corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises.

On the societal front, long-term structural difficulties such as financial instabilities and global warming require creative and innovative solutions as well as collaboration on a scale seldom seen in the history of humanity. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Christian de Duve: “We have evolved traits [such as group selfishness] that will lead to humanity’s extinction—so we must learn how to overcome them.” And it is fitting to couple this last quote with Albert Einstein’s famous statement: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times 

See also: 

OECD (2010), Learning for Jobs, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, Paris. 

www.oecd.org/education

©OECD Yearbook 2012




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