Action needed to ensure future workers have problem-solving and critical thinking skills

Thursday 3 March 2022

A review of recent research and thought leadership pieces on future employment skills suggests problem-solving, critical thinking and communication will become increasingly essential in the next 15 years as technology becomes more embedded in the workforce.

New technologies, coupled with major demographic and environmental changes, are predicted to transform employment over the coming decades. These effects are forecast to have a huge impact on the role of workers in the labour market in the next 10 to 15 years and beyond, both in terms of the jobs that will be available and the skills needed to do them. Failure to develop the skills base of the workforce could have significant effects including underemployment and social issues.

To investigate this, NFER, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has looked at what the published literature tells us about how the world of work is changing and what this means for the likely demand and supply of essential employment skills up until the year 2035.

The review is the first of a series of reports from a five-year research programme which will project the essential skills needs of employers and their likely supply by 2035, identify where the skills gaps are likely to be, and establish what the implications are for the education system (including how to target support at the groups most vulnerable to the impact of the transformation of the labour market).

The literature reviewed highlights:

  • Workers with low levels of education or in low-skilled/routine tasks continue to be at greatest risk from automation, particularly in areas such as production, manufacturing and administration. However, artificial intelligence will also impact higher skilled jobs.
  • The importance of human reasoning and interaction in expected growth areas (such as health, social care and education) as well as the importance of those essential skills in areas more typically associated with the future, such as digital, technological and green industries.
  • The urgency of action needed to ensure future skills supply and employability, given that around 1.5% of the manufacturing workforce in the EU has already been displaced by technology (Oxford Economics, 2019) and 22 per cent of current workforce activities across the EU could be automated by 2030 (Smit et al. 2020).
  • The pandemic has accelerated the pace of digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) and exacerbated labour market inequalities, again underlining the need for action.
  • Problem-solving/decision making, critical thinking/analysis, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation are transferable skills which will be in high demand in the next 15 years and beyond.

Jude Hillary, the Principal Investigator for the research Programme and the Co-Head of UK Policy and Practice at NFER said: 

 “A long term strategic plan is needed to support the development of these skills through the education system and other mechanisms to ensure that people can work and flourish in their jobs. 

“This needs to be based on practical insights and evidence to inform planning on how the future demand for essential employment skills will be met.”

Cheryl Lloyd, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“When it comes to employment skills, the evidence reviewed in this study identifies problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills as being critical in the future labour market. But it’s also clear that we lack a plan for how to systematically equip people with those skills. That’s why the NFER’s Skills Imperative 2035 programme is so essential – we need to address these questions about education, skills and work to ensure that all young people have the knowledge and skills they need to thrive.”

The Skills Imperative 2035: Essential skills for tomorrow's workforce, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, sees NFER and its co-investigators working with employers, policy makers, and education leaders to address these pressing issues about education, skills and work.

Jude Hillary will be working with Professor Andy Dickerson and Professor Steven McIntosh from the University of Sheffield, Professor Rob Wilson from the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick University, Professor Bryony Hoskins from the University of Roehampton, Cambridge Econometrics, Kantar Public, and Sam Avanzo Windett at Learning and Work Institute.