Online Symposium of the StartNet Europe network on the future of work and education with Andreas Schleicher from OECD in Summer 2021

Technologies, working habits and jobs seem to change at an ever-faster pace. This became particularly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, enhancing digitalisation, online consumption, professional and social life.

While sometimes, we struggle to keep up to date with rapid change, it also leaves educational stakeholders with the question, what will the labour market of the future look like? How will jobs and required skills evolve and how can education best prepare people for working and living in the future?

In summer 2021, these questions were the starting point of the Symposium of the StartNet Europe network, gathering 17 educational initiatives from 12 countries for young people’s transition to work.

A presentation by Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at OECD, was setting the scene for the event. He portrayed the main trends that are influencing our (working) lives, as well as the challenges this entails for education systems. You can review the entire video here and read its main messages below.

Automation & Digitalisation

Driven by innovation, business models, labour markets and jobs are constantly evolving. Increasing automation and digitalisation require different skills sets. Routine tasks get erased and the usage of information and communications technology (ICT) becomes more and more frequent. Although artificial intelligence is not a completely new phenomenon, it is an amplifier of these trends.

As a result, people need more and more ICT skills. Young people already have better digital skills than other age groups, but still less than half of them can cope with complex digital information. So being digital native does not entail digital literacy by default.

Moreover, digital skills are not only a technological competency, such as coding, but they rely on certain meta-competences. “We need to stop educating second class robots. The best digital skills you develop by helping people to think for themselves and work with others”, says Mr Schleicher. Education needs to focus more on delivering truly human skills, such as being creative, entrepreneurial. A growth mindset is key, having the courage to try out and learn from failures – not being afraid to make mistakes.

Transformative competences for the future are those that create new value. Unlike artificial intelligence, human intelligence is also about taking responsibility or coping with ambiguity. Growth-mindsets are inherent to children, but often get lost through learning environments that discourage, sanction and limit them, resulting in a fixed mindset that they cannot change anything. Instead, learning environments should create room for experimentation and expression, for learning to cope with difficulties.

Continuous career guidance & early intervention

Between 30% and 50% of young people seek jobs that are disappearing. Most young people aspire to only very few occupations, while the labour market gets more and more diverse. Therefore, continuous orientation is needed to broaden young people’s horizons. “Transition to work already starts at primary school.”

Most effective guidance starts as early as possible, not just before graduation. Moreover, while teachers are often required to offer guidance, they are rarely well prepared to do so.

An effective solution relies on the collaboration with the world of work. Internships, work-based learning and bringing workers into schools permits to equip young people with a better and more realistic understanding of the labour market as well as their potential place in it.

Social inclusion

Quality education is also a matter of funding. Who pays for learning outside work, preparing for the next job? How can all citizens benefit from such offers, also disadvantaged groups?

Education is too often dominated by a one size fits all approach, designed by privileged people to suit their own needs, who are then surprised, when the system falls short for others. Learning has to match learner’s styles, be more relevant for all kinds of groups and individuals. Moreover, digitalisation and online learning has a lot of potential to address diversity and permit better learning for everyone.

Education remains the key to inclusion and climbing the social ladder. “If you come from a disadvantaged background, there is just one single door in your life, one card you can play and that is a great teacher and a great school.”

Lifelong learning and education ecosystems

Most schools still represent education of the 20th century. So-called 21st century skills however, are acquired earlier in life, before and outside of schools. Empathy, curiosity, courage, leadership are difficult to acquire in current education systems. Pre-existing skills differences are rather amplified than harmonised throughout formal education.

While the link between the formal education system and jobs is decreasing, informal and non-formal learning outside institutions and through alternative educational providers becomes more and more important. Micro-credentials will permit to recognise skills that were acquired in various settings at a more granular level, giving more ownership to the students about what, when and how they learn. Self-paced and job-based learning will prevail over expensive university diplomas, which do not reflect what people are actually able to do.

“The stakeholder ecosystem will be the future lifelong learning environment”. Learning will become more continuous, more individualised and self-managed. In that logic, civil society and learners should be involved in the design of curricula. They should have a say about what good learning is, about standard setting, and certification.

Collaboration with companies and skills anticipation

Companies play a crucial role in education eco-systems. They are allies for young people’s transition to work. Although it can be challenging to engage with a company as a whole, individual staff can be attracted more easily. One example are workers, who are coming to school to tell about their jobs and who can give a much more realistic and insightful picture of the labour market. The matching can happen via a dedicated website.

Another question is, whether we are able to prepare young people not only for today’s realities, but to anticipate future changes. Companies can be very helpful to point out skills that are currently needed on the labour market. However, they cannot really predict the future. Therefore, developing a broader range of skills for various future scenarios turns out to be more effective.

Ultimately, there are also effects from education to the evolution on the labour market. “The future of skills is the future of work”, says Mr Schleicher. Educating and empowering young people for a better future will also have an impact on how the world of work is going to evolve. In that sense, green skills will be essential to achieve a green transitions towards sustainable development.

From knowledge to practice

This broader context of the future of work still needs to be translated and considered for various educational realities and stakeholders working in the field. Following the insights from the OECD, the StartNet Europe partners engaged in operational group discussions on how this knowledge can be put into practice across Europe.

There are various examples of how different educational stakeholders team up at local or regional level to create ecosystems in order to support all young people’s transition to work and the future of work:

  • Aliseo Liguria is successfully running large-scale orientation activities that connect the world of work and schools by bringing professionals into classrooms to share their experience and inspire the students.
  • Early guidance is the objective of the Skills for Life Erasmus+ Project. It supports teachers and other educational staff to empower young people through life design skills.
  • Another Erasmus+ project in the pipeline plans to support secondary-school student’s transition to work. The consortium of StartNet Europe partners to be led by Fundación Santa Maria la Real, aims to bridge the gap between education and labour market by engaging stakeholders, providing orientation and delivering skills for the future.
  • Fundación Secretariado Gitano in Spain has designed among others a digital learning programme #empleando digital” that aims to equip young Roma people in Spain with the digital skills for the labour market of the future – permitting social and economic progress.
  • Cometa Formazione in Italy focuses on inclusive excellence, empowering young people through skills development and overcoming their vulnerabilities. They take the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to further innovate their vocational education programmes
  • StartNet in Italy has done a thorough potential analysis of the Apulia Region’s future prospects as a basis of their work and for the guidance of teachers, students and parents. Dedicated programmes aim to prevent educational poverty and provide broader 21st century skills sets in collaboration with local educational stakeholders, including the families.
  • Scoala de Valori in Romania has a vast portfolio of educational projects to deliver skills for the future. A recent innovation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic was their Career Bus that responds to challenges of decreased mobility and reaching out to wider areas.
  • Tracé Brussel is gathering employers, public employment services, regional government and administration for dedicated seminars on the future of work. They are in the process of designing an e-learning track throughout secondary education on the future of study and job opportunities – in collaboration with public employment services, employers and trade unions.
  • Among the vocational offers presented by KOST Tirol, in particular the apprenticeship training has to be highlighted. The programme has presented the collaboration of Innsbruck University students with major private companies to include intercultural aspects, gamification or social media, creating more attractive, fitting and future proof-experiences into the training programme.
  • With their project partnership “Balkan Green IdeasARNO in Northern Macedonia is focussing on the sustainability aspect and especially green skills for the future. This regional competition awards innovative, green ideas, which utilise local resources and revitalise traditional production chains and community-based markets.
  • Knowledge at Work (Znanje na djelu / Wissen am Werk) from Croatia is running their KARIJEROTEKA online conversation programme with inspiring people focusing particularly on green economy and the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The City of Mannheim links the development of a regional STEM cluster with existing counselling services at the transition from school to work. In this way, disadvantaged young people are introduced to STEM training, access to STEM professions and careers is supported.

These are just a few examples of forward-looking initiatives across Europe that are contributing to the future of education. A lot more has to happen to connect and enhance similar practices in order to ensure education systems in Europe become really fit for the future and all young people can acquire the skills they need to succeed on this pathway.