Workforce of the Future

By Lisa Morrison Coulthard, NFER Research Director

Friday 21 January 2022

This article was first published in ASCL’s Leader magazine on Friday 21 January 2022. 

It is anticipated that the world of work will undergo a significant transformation over the next decade and beyond. New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and increased automation, as well as major demographic and environmental changes, are expected to have far reaching and long-lasting effects on the labour market. 

This transformation is going to be one of the major strategic challenges faced by schools and colleges in the next few decades [i]. Some commentators forecast that that roles in sectors such as production, sales, administrative, and other manual jobs are most likely to become automated [ii] [iii], whereas managerial, professional and technical roles will increase in numbers [iv] [v]. Skills such as creativity, critical thinking, teamworking, problem solving and resilience – skills which complement the new technologies and other changes taking place - are likely to become increasingly important.

But before we consider the role education can play in supporting the development of employment skill sets, we must understand the types of skills most needed for work in the future, and how this demand will be met. Currently, the nature of this transformation and its implications for education, employers and the workforce is not well understood, but these evidence gaps need to be filled.

The importance of understanding future skills needs cannot be underestimated]

Without evidence-based, long-term planning for an education that supports young people to develop the right skills, there is a real risk the current skills mismatch [vi] will be further exacerbated.

This may lead to under-employment and unemployment, along with enduring social and economic problems. The consideration of this longer-term impact is essential.  We need to look at how this may impact different groups because commentators suggest those most likely to be affected will be the lower paid, the less educated, the vulnerable and young people [vii][viii].

Filling the evidence gap

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is leading a five-year strategic research programme, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, to increase understanding of the future skills needs (visit We will lead a multi-disciplinary team, working alongside co-investigators from the universities of Sheffield, Warwick and Roehampton, as well as Cambridge Econometrics, Kantar, and the Learning and Work Institute.

This research aims to provide new insights into the future demand for and supply of employment skills most needed in future, when new technologies and other effects are expected to have transformed the labour market. This will enable the identification of which groups and sectors are most at risk and we will work with government, employers, educators and others to develop strategies to help workers and young people develop the right skills needed in the future labour market. We refer to these skills as ‘essential employment skills’

What will we be exploring?

Our programme will focus on addressing a number of research questions.

We will consider the extent to which current education provision in England supports the development of the essential employment skill set that will be needed in future to prepare young people who will be entering the labour market in the next 15 years. This includes the different pathways (including routes and qualifications) through which skill sets are developed for 16-18 year-olds. Other factors (such as socio-economic background) which may impact on skills development will also be examined.

As part of our evidence gathering, we will also explore what other countries are doing to help their young people develop these essential employment skills This will provide insight into potentially relevant policy and practice changes which could be implemented in the UK, especially when drawn from other countries with higher comparable skills levels.

We will examine how the nature of jobs and future demand for skills may change as a result of greater adoption of new technologies and other factors affecting the labour market. This will provide us with new insight into which employment skills are most likely to be in demand from employers in the next 10-15 years.

We will also look at supply and assess whether there are likely to be sufficient numbers of workers in 2035 with the essential employment skills to meet future demand, and model how possible labour market policies could impact on the availability of these skills. As an estimated two-thirds of the workers in the labour market of 2035 are already working, it is really important to understand where these supply gaps will fall.

The groups of workers who are most likely to be impacted by changes in demand for different employment skills will also be examined. Moreover, we need to understand what routes for potential occupational transitions could be most successfully used for those groups most likely to suffer as a result of the changes.

Armed with the evidence generated by our programme of research, the nature of the challenge will be better understood and used to inform the planning and delivery of a future skills strategy designed to meet employment needs in the coming decades. With the right strategy implemented at the right time, people will flourish in their jobs, helping to secure a prosperous future for our economy and society.

We will be providing updates as the work progresses and engage with a range of stakeholders, including ASCL members, to share our knowledge and insight as it emerges.


[iv] Position Paper (05.04.2018).pdf