Formal education is teaching workers the wrong things, instead of digital, technical, and soft skills
COMMENT | LEEJONG-WHA | As digital technologies and automation have advanced, fears about workers’ futures have increased. But, the end result does not have to be negative. The key is education.
Already, robots are taking over a growing number of routine and repetitive tasks, putting workers in some sectors under serious pressure. In South Korea, which hasthe world’s highest density of industrial robots –631 per 10,000 workers –manufacturing employment is declining, andyouth unemployment is high.In the United States, the increased use of robots has, according to a 2017 study, hurt employment and wages.
But while technological progress undoubtedly destroys jobs, it also creates them.Theinvention of motor vehicleslargely wiped out jobs building or operating horse-drawn carriages, but generated millions more not just in automobile factories,but also in related sectors like road construction. Recent studiesindicatethat the net effects ofautomationon employment, achieved through upstream industry linkages and demand spillovers, have been positive.
The challenge today lies in the fact that the production and use of increasingly advanced technologies demand new, often higher-level skills, which cannot simply be picked up on the job. Given this, countries need to ensure that all of their residents have access to high-quality education and training programs that meet the needs of the labour market. The outcomeof the race between technology and educationwill determinewhethertheopportunitiespresented bymajor innovations are seized, and whether the benefits of progress arewidely shared.
In many countries, technology has taken the lead. The recent rise in income inequality in China and other East Asian economies, for example, reflects the widening gap between those who are able to adopt advanced technologies and those who aren’t. But education-job mismatches plague economies worldwide, partly because formal education fails to produce graduates with skills and technical competencies relevant to the labour market.
In areport by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU),66% of executives surveyed were dissatisfied with the skill level of young employees, and52% said a skills gap wasan obstacle to their firm’s performance. Meanwhile, according to an OECD survey,21% of workers reported feelingover-educated for their jobs.
This suggests that formal education is teaching workers the wrong things, and that deep reform is essential to facilitate the developmentof digital knowledge and technical skills, as well as non-routine cognitive and non-cognitive (or “soft”)skills. This includes the “four Cs of twenty-first century learning”(critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication) –areas where humans retain a considerable advantage over artificially intelligent machines.
The process must begin during primary education, because only with a strong foundation can people take full advantage oflatereducation and training.And in the economy of the future, that training will never really end. Given rapid technological progress, improved opportunities for effective lifelong learning will be needed to enable workers to upgrade their skills continuously or learn new ones. At all levels of education, curricula should be mademore flexible and responsive to changing technologies and market demands.
One potential barrier to this approach is a dearth of well-trained teachers. In Sub-Saharan African countries, for example, there are some 44 pupils for every qualified secondary school teacher, on average; for primary schools, theratioiseven worse, at 58 to one. Building a quality teaching force will require both monetary and non-monetary incentives for teachers and higherinvestment in their professional development.
This includes ensuring that teachers have the tools they need to take full advantage of information and communication technology (ICT), which is not being used widely, despite its potential to ensure broad access to lifelong learning through formal and informal channels. According to theEIU report, only 28% of secondary-school students surveyed said that their school was actively using ICTin lessons.
ICT can also help to address shortages of qualified teachers and other educational resources by providing access across long distances, via online learning platforms. For example,the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’sOpenCourseWareenablesstudents around the world toreach some of the world’s foremostteachers.
This points to the broader value of international cooperation. The education challengesraised by advancing technologies affect everyone, so countries should work together to address them, including through exchanges of students and teachers and constructionandupgrading of ICT infrastructure.