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Essential skills for 2035

  • 13 June 2023
  • By Mary Curnock Cook CBE
  • This HEPI blog was kindly provided by Mary Curnock Cook CBE, a HEPI Trustee. Mary chairs the Strategic Advisory Board for the Nuffield / NFER Skills Imperative 2035 project. You can find Mary on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook.
  • Don’t forget to sign up for the 2023 HEPI Annual Conference, taking place on 22 June in central London. Details here.

A new report from the NFER-led Skills Imperative 2035, An analysis of the demand for skills in the labour market in 2035 is a must-read for the higher education sector.  Part of a five-year research programme funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the latest publication from a University of Sheffield team lays out in forensic detail how demand for skills will shift as our economy and labour needs change between now and 2035.

The key finding shows that, in spite of fundamental changes to the labour market caused by AI and automation, and other social, environmental and economic impacts, the top six ‘Essential Employment Skills’ remain very similar to those measured in 2010 and 2020.

The essential employment skills identified are:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creative thinking
  • Information literacy (skills related to gathering, processing, and using information)
  • Organising, planning and prioritising work
  • Problem-solving and decision making  

The authors note that demand for these skills grows significantly by 2035 as does the level at which they are required.  Almost 90 per cent of the 2.2m new jobs that are forecast to be created in England between now and 2035 will be at professional and associate professional level where higher levels of proficiency in these skills are required. 

While this list might seem to be at odds with current policy emphasis on ‘technical’ and ‘digital’ skills, the report makes clear that these skills are needed in almost all occupations and are required in addition to specialist and technical skills used in specific job roles or sectors, which will also change as the labour market shifts. This mirrors a report from Pearson on the five ‘power skills’ that employers are seeking.  And a recent Forbes article points out that employers rank soft skills higher than technical skills when hiring new employees.  ‘Knowing how to code may be critical if you’re a software developer, but those skills won’t matter if you can’t do the soft things: work well on a team, lead a project, communicate clearly, and think critically,’ they point out.

The essential employment skills identified in the report might seem familiar, echoing as they do decades of calls from employers for more of these ‘soft’ skills, and many universities’ employability initiatives will use a framework based around a similar set of employability skills. Higher education leaders are typically fluent about the transferable skills embedded in their programmes and which prepare their graduates for successful working lives, earning a significant wage premium as a result. 

But this data-led analysis shows that we can no longer treat these essential skills as an assumed side-benefit of higher education. Now they need to be called out specifically in the learning outcomes of all programmes and students will rightly demand high visibility of skills, embedded or otherwise, so that they can confidently pursue aspirational work opportunities post-graduation.  

If we really want to prepare students for successful working futures, should they not be able to search courses based on a skills quotient as well as by course title and university preference?  Each course will develop essential skills in different ways and at different intensity depending on the programme.  But currently, entering ‘problem solving’ or ‘collaboration’ in the UCAS course search delivers a nil return making it impossible to compare the relative emphasis on these skills between one course offer and another.  Potential students would surely welcome this additional information to support their course choices.  A new initiative from Manchester Metropolitan’s Professor Mark Peace to convene an Institute for Experiential and Skills Based Learning is leaning in to the emphasis on skills that students want and need to support their career success. 

Although NFER’s findings focus on the top six essential skills, the research includes an exhaustive analysis of skills mapped against the US O*NET skills classification.  While the top six skills have remained fairly constant through the historical and projected timespan from 2010 – 2035, more skills changes are outlined in the report. Just focussing on the top 20 skills reveals some newcomers to the list such as ‘interacting with computers’ and ‘analysing data or information’ as set out in Figure 19 from the report below. (Note: the read across from the O*NET skills definitions to the NFER’s six essential skills is covered on p76 in the report).

The authors also point out the potential omission of ‘digital skills’ from the list of top skills, especially given the widespread use of this term by policymakers and commentators as a shorthand for skills needs in the technological age. They use the UNESCO definition of digital skills, noting that they consider digital skills to be a ‘higher-order construct that runs through many of the specific skills that are identified to be most prevalent in employment’:

… a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information. They enable people to create and share digital content, communicate and collaborate, and solve problems for effective and creative self-fulfillment in life, learning, work, and social activities at large’ (UNESCO, 2022).

The next phase of the research will start to estimate the supply of these essential skills in 2035, predict skills gaps, and investigate how the education system can support the development of these essential employment skills for the future. However, this report provides the evidence base for universities to accelerate their work on skills development in higher education programmes and get ahead of the skills demand changes that it predicts.

Further information and previous reports from the NFER Skills Imperative 2035 series can be found here

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