Is our workforce ready for an age of acceleration?
I have a son aged fourteen. As he embarks on what is to be the start of a long student journey that should equip him with what is required to join the workforce, my biggest concern remains his future employability. My concern does not emanate from a common concern that robots might replace human activity but rather from a more basic concern: whether our current teaching methodologies are preparing him and our young generations adequately for the skillset which the workforce of the not-so-far future will need.
The world in which we operate is going through rapid change – one where transformation is a reality – accelerated among other things by the onset of the new digital era. As a parent and as an employer, I often wonder whether, as a country, we are equipped enough for this transformation; and whether our education system is agile enough in the face of these accelerated changes. How prepared are this and future generations, how prepared is the country’s current and future workforce, how prepared are our current and future leaders for the agility and flexibility that will, without doubt, be required of them?
Individuals’ preferences, behaviour and interactions are evolving, and the way in which organisations operate is also transforming. This shift poses important questions about the skills which will be required in future, our assumptions about careers and employment, and the extent to which Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotic process automation will enhance, lessen or replace human activity. Now, more than ever, our educators, employers and business leaders need to collaborate, to anticipate, to plan and implement a fully-fledged strategy that will enable Malta to build the workforce of the future. And we must act fast, if we want to remain relevant and competitive.
The change that we require needs to start at the very heart of our education system – it needs to focus on the country’s vision for education, the quality of teaching and the agility to transform and remain sustainable.
The quality of teaching, a sustainable approach
To achieve the success that other countries have achieved within education, we need to study and analyse their success factors in depth. Finland, for instance, is without doubt a pioneer and a world leader in this area. For starters, the teaching profession in Finland is highly valued, it follows a school system based on equality and trains teachers through science-based programmes. Teachers are free to choose their methodologies. Their aim is to equip students with a ‘can do’ attitude, a creative mindset, a problem-solving outlook and agility to adapt – all factors that are somewhat distinct from our country’s exam focused culture.
The speed at which the world is changing and the digital era within which we are operating must be planned and catered for. Teaching methodologies cannot stagnate when everything else around us is changing. Not only must teaching content change but too must methodologies – moving away from an individualistic class-based approach into a team project-based approach, moving away from a one-man, one-solution mindset to solving complex issues together, moving away from a hand-holding culture to a research-based, collaborative culture.
Learning skills rather than subjects
While businesses today are in need of highly-developed talent in a wide array of specialized areas, employers and graduates often realize that there is a mismatch between what qualifications prepare our graduates for and the career-relevant skills that the modern workplace demands. The solution lies in the next level of innovation in learning to address this skills gap.
Traditionally, teachers primarily teach and have taught school subjects. We now need to move away from teaching subjects and towards a future where teachers will increasingly teach comprehensive learning skills. We need to move away from learning mechanically and move into a space that our children, our young adults and our more mature audiences are active learners and fully engaged. This will make teaching and training problem and phenomenon based, developing learners’ analytical, problem-solving and thinking skills. It will lead to a much-awaited shift towards cross-disciplinary learning concepts, methodologies and programmes in a technology-driven learning environment. This approach enables learners to learn how to learn, to be constantly learning new things – an approach that will generate an agile and flexible workforce. This ‘adaptive learner’ methodology is indeed the sustainable approach in the face of the impact of emerging technologies and changing work patterns.
Embracing technology, not resisting it
Embracing the digital era and managing the human interface with technology is critical to educators and employers. Our learning methodologies need to incorporate technology and employers need to assess not only the opportunities, but also the challenges of leveraging exciting new technologies like AI and machine learning to deliver value for customers. The key to success lies in retaining human insight, skill, creativity and oversight, while exploiting the analytical power, personalisation, customer convenience, speed and reach that technology offers.
Our schools, university and our higher education institutions must support this fundamental change by investing in continuous development, in learning and in research-based teacher education. Hypersonic accelerations of technology and data should stimulate innovative educators to create new pedagogical systems that empower students with the skills today to lead tomorrow.
At the corporate level, transformation in learning is upon us. It is rapidly shifting into, virtual learning blending in with classroom learning. I have personally witnessed this evolution of service offering in our Academy. C-suite clients and corporates are no longer looking for training sessions. They expect a service offering that blends the use of one-to-one coaching, with the use of online learning platforms and the more traditional face-to-face classroom learning. Although they may initially reach out to us to foster the growth and development of skills gaps based on their specific needs and industry requirements, demand quickly evolves into a need to co-create strategies and to assist them with innovating their businesses through advanced techniques such as design thinking. The form and shape of learning is indeed shifting, and it is doing so continuously.
“So, what should we tell our children? That to stay ahead, you need to focus on your ability to continuously adapt, engage with others in that process, and most importantly retain your core sense of identity and values. For students, it’s not just about acquiring knowledge, but about how to learn. For the rest of us, we should remember that intellectual complacency is not our friend and that learning – not just new things but new ways of thinking – is a life-long endeavour.” Blair Sheppard Global Leader, Strategy and Leadership Development, PwC
I have purposely decided to focus this article on learning and education across professions and not to limit it to the accounting profession. I firmly believe that the challenges and opportunities we are facing are nation-wide and not profession-specific. They are indeed a reflection of the megatrends and the pace of change we are facing, indeed one which is accelerating. This acceleration does not allow us time to sit back and wait for events to unfold but it is a time to be prepared for the future. In order to retain its competitive edge, Malta must outline a nation-wide strategy that brings together all stakeholders with the aim to be agile in the co-creation of an education system that fully prepares the nation’s workforce of the future.
Asonitou Sofia, 2015, The Evolution of Accounting Education and the Development of Skills (Technological Educational Institute of Athens)
Azizul Islam, Muhammad,2017 , Future of Accounting Profession: Three Major Changes and Implications for Teaching and Research
Mathews M.R. 2010, The way forward for accounting education? A comment on Albrecht and Sack ‘A Perilous Future’