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The role of transferable skills in economic recovery

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The UK faces not just a huge skills deficit, but rising unemployment that’s particularly concentrated in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, including hospitality, travel and retail. For large numbers of newly unemployed people the path back to work will involve a career change. Whether that means transitioning within a sector to a different role – shaped by new health and safety protocols and increasing automation – or a sidestep into a completely new industry where growth is predicted to continue, individuals will need to identify the skills they have and those they need to get hired. 

Responsibility for solving this challenge by no means falls only on jobseekers. Businesses and government have a lot of work to do to reskill and upskill citizens to address the gap – which predates the pandemic and is most pronounced in digital skills – and to support the recovery of our economy. 

What employers want

There are many forces that make the future of work uncertain: automation is one of them. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Jobs report recognises that “while 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms”. 

While it is possible to predict the broad nature of these roles, it is not yet possible to know the precise skills and knowledge that will be needed to perform them effectively. Transferable skills, therefore, are essential for anyone who wishes to future-proof their career. Identifying and honing abilities that can be applied across a range of roles will give hopeful employees an edge over competitors, and greater choice when it comes to deciding the path that they wish to take, as well as flexibility to change career further down the line. 

According to The HR Digest, the skills that will be most in demand in the near future include adaptability, communication, emotional intelligence, leadership, collaboration, creativity and time management. It’s not a surprising list: with the shift to remote working for many roles predicted to last, attributes such as time management and emotional intelligence are invaluable to maintaining productivity and motivation. 

The WEF highlights the importance of critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, and self-management skills including active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility. Given the dominance of uncertainty when it comes to the future, a commitment to continued learning and demonstrable curiosity will be attractive qualities in candidates likely to be taking on roles that will shift and transform in response to economic and technological developments. Similarly, as The Future of Jobs report says that “94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job”, being a quick and dedicated learner will encourage businesses to have confidence in new employees’ ability to keep up with the pace of change. One way candidates can do this is to continue their personal and professional development while unemployed, for example by taking free courses from providers including the Open University and FutureLearn. 

Identifying and cultivating transferable skills

PwC, in its report Upskilling for Shared Prosperity, emphasises that, “the development of transferable skills such as critical thinking and creativity is crucial to helping people prepare not only to meet the workplace demands of today but also for those of the future.”

All jobs equip employees with transferable skills, the trick is identifying them. Moving from one industry to another can feel like an incredibly daunting task. Self-awareness and the ability to self-promote are key to the success of those wishing – or needing – to make this kind of move. Alongside identifying transferable skills they have gained from work, jobseekers need to build employability skills. 

Identifying transferable skills requires taking a step back. For example, sales assistants within in-store retail – an industry which has been in decline for some time and which has been harshly impacted by the global pandemic – have usually honed great communications skills. Customer services abilities developed by being in customer-facing positions and dealing with difficult interactions such as complaints, are essential across many sectors. In-store retail workers are well placed to take on other customer-facing roles, from a digital sales role in a fast-growing direct-to-consumer brand to a customer support lead for an established financial company, for example. 

Hairdressing is another example of an industry hit hard by the pandemic. For an out-of-work hairdresser, transitioning to another role may seem impossible given their specialist training. However, hairdressers can clearly demonstrate creativity, a much sought-after skill, and are also likely to have honed excellent communication skills from long hours spent conversing and building relationships with their customers. These attributes are all desired by employers looking to build a workforce that can be expected to cope with whatever the future will bring. 

The role of employers and policymakers

The responsibility for plugging the skills gap and securing our economy does not rest solely on the shoulders of workers. According to researcher, Josh Abey from socialist think-tank the Fabian Society: “just as policymakers need to collaborate with businesses and trade unions over industrial strategy and reskilling initiatives, employers need to create a social partnership with workers”. Collaboration between employers and employees will be essential to building a strong economy for the future. It’s a sentiment echoed by WorldSkills UK CEO Neil Bentley-Gockmann who, in response to the launch of the Prime Minister’s Build Back Better Council, commented: “an explicit discussion on how to develop a UK ‘skills economy’ should be at the core of the group’s mission as part of building an economic strategy for the future.”

PwC has estimated that, “if countries upskill their citizens in line with OECD industry best practices, this would lead to additional global GDP growth of $6.5 trillion and the creation of 5.3 million net new jobs by 2030.” The UK’s Help to Grow initiative, which will support SMEs to gain digital skills and boost productivity and innovation, and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which is reshaping tertiary education to make it fit for the future by offering 400 new free courses, will hopefully enable businesses and individuals to collaborate to shape a better, more sustainable economy. There is a shared responsibility, among citizens, governments and business leaders, to invest time and energy into developing the skills required to create a prosperous future. 

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