We know that education and work have forever changed in profound ways due to the pandemic and recession. 

Pearson’s 2020 Global Learner Survey has uncovered some interesting facts:

  • 46% “realized there were skills I needed that I hadn’t learned in school or college”, up 4% from 2019 — It took a pandemic to reveal weaknesses or gaps in people’s skill sets. Perhaps this is a wake-up call for many people to upskill or upgrade themselves.
  • 88% believe people will need to take more responsibility for directing their own learning or upskilling for their job — Everyone is responsible for their own learning or upskilling.
  • 87% believe that “skills people need for work are different than five years ago because we are now using more technology in our day-to-day work” — The ever-changing requirement for different skill sets will only exponentially accelerate in the future due to advances in technology and the changing nature of work.
  • 89% believe that “people will need to develop more of their soft skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity” — Apart from hard technical skills, many people will need to focus their attention to the development and acquisition of soft skills. But it will be up to a certain level where skills acquisition will have to be translated to the application.
  • A degree or certificate from a vocational college or trade school is more likely to result in a good job with career prospects than a university degree — The shift towards practical hands-on training and education will become more severe as universities (and institutions of higher learning) take their time to pivot to the current requirements for more employable workers who are job-ready with the rights skills and experience. The competing priorities and expectations between universities and job seekers will become louder due to high unemployment rates experienced by many countries.

I have written about the need to focus on our attitudes and behaviours in discerning, building and curating quality personal mental libraries through rich and varied experiences and learning. While there is a need to focus on the acquisition of more knowledge and skills, there will come a time where the application of this acquired knowledge and skills will become more important. 

The amount of knowledge that is generated has been exponential. It has become virtually impossible to keep up with or memorise vast amounts of knowledge. Knowing how to analyse and categorise knowledge for future use and application will become more important than just acquiring more knowledge for the sake of it.

In effect, people need to draw upon a mental library of questions and strategies that they have previously learned and experienced to solve problems. Equally important is their ability to build and constantly curate (maintain) this library of questions for future use based on the knowledge and skills gained. The quality of this library will determine how successful problems can be solved.

People need practical and rich on-the-job experience to curate and maintain a quality mental library of questions and strategies to solve problems. It will come to a point where it is not about acquiring more skills in solving problems but acquiring more learned experiences that will determine the quality of our decision making. The effective and timely application of our learned knowledge and skills that will determine our future success.

It is not more skills acquisition that people require but it is about how skills and knowledge can be effectively applied in or translated into different situations and context for better decision making where they can be adapted to the different environment.

The summary of the problem

  • It does take a crisis for people to change their behaviours. Humans will generally not change unless there is an external circumstance that is forced up them. This will cause them to come to a realisation that they do not have the right skills for their future employment and income source.
  • The volume of knowledge generated is ever-increasing, exponentially that is. It is, therefore, virtually impossible to remember everything.
  • Googling and YouTubing have become the preferred mode of gaining just-in-time knowledge, especially with the younger generation. When people want information, rather than committing it to memory, they will just do an online search. It is easier and quicker.
  • When this occurs, people need to draw on their prior knowledge for curating the best search term to deliver the best search results. Knowing where to find the right information will become important. Knowing which tool to use will also be equally important. This could only occur through hands-on practical experience and not by reading a book. Understanding the nuances will be critical for gaining just-in-time knowledge and skills.
  • Universities have traditionally been focusing on the provision of just-in-case knowledge rather than employable skills and experience that will make students and job seekers job-ready for the present and into the future.
  • With the ever-changing nature of work and technology, the acquired just-in-case knowledge can expire or go out-of-date very quickly. The fallback position will be on the application of our learned experiences in new situations rather than sifting through just-in-case knowledge.
  • There are more educated young people who are unemployed or becoming unemployed, especially caused by pandemic or recession. 
  • Many people are working in jobs that are totally unrelated to their degrees or field of study. They rely on their prior learned experiences rather than their acquired just-in-case knowledge. They bring in their transferable skills acquired elsewhere into these jobs.
  • The competitive business and technological landscape have forced many employers to only hire job-ready skilled employees who can effectively but immediately create value for them or to make or save money. Many businesses are operating on survival mode. Others have closed or gone bankrupt due to the pandemic and recession. The reality is that the business environment is very tough. They desperately need job-ready workers who can contribute immediately to their survival.
  • Many employers do not have the time or money to re-skill or upskill workers even if they wanted to. They are just surviving financially themselves. Workers are left to themselves to upskill and upgrade.
  • There is a widening skills-experience gap between what universities and education institutions are producing and what employers and businesses are demanding and requiring. Universities should be designing competencies and qualifications that reflect what is required in the workplace. They need to prepare individuals to succeed in the future labour market.
  • Many students are unfortunately carrying huge education-related debt that will impact their lives forever. These debts may not be re-paid due to high unemployment rates amongst young people. Many students are also overborrowing. Worse still, they are gaining a piece of paper that employers don’t want or can’t be used in their current job.
  • Wages and salaries have not increased over the past years. Depressed salaries levels will only give workers less money over time due to inflation and higher cost of food, accommodation and medical expenses.
  • The use of technology will only exponentially accelerate. Many jobs will be transformed by technology. While many jobs will be lost, new jobs will be created. 
  • The application of existing knowledge and skills into a new context will only become more critical. This is the alternative to the acquisition of more skills and knowledge, just for the sake of it. This could only occur with the existence of a quality mental library of learned experiences where people can draw on for its application in whatever context.
  • Many economies are already in a recession, accelerated by the pandemic. Many businesses — large and small — are dying or going bankrupt. Workers and job seekers need to curate and maintain a quality mental library of learned experiences in order to stay employed. They cannot do this by online learning or through the traditional learning environment.
  • Unemployment rates across many countries are at an all-time high. There are many experienced job seekers who will crowd out inexperience young people who are graduating from universities or who are looking for jobs. This COVID generation will suffer most — well-educated, drowning in education debt, unemployed, and emotionally challenged.
  • Young people will have fewer opportunities to perform hands-on knowledge and skills acquisition at workplaces. People need jobs and experiences to be able to learn and build up their mental libraries.
  • Remote learning does not effectively enable the practical building up of these mental libraries of learned experiences. While the adoption of remote learning has significantly increased due to the pandemic, its utility in effectively building up quality mental libraries of learned experiences is untested or yet to be seen.

So, where does this leave us?

Ways forward

  • Establish a clear point of direction and leadership for the education sector that mobilises and empowers all stakeholders to deliver on a shared purpose.
  • Prioritise effective governance, with government and industry having clearly defined roles and accountabilities. Decisions about strategic direction, system-wide objectives and funding must be clearly defined by all stakeholders, taking into account input from industries, business owners, education providers and communities.
  • Ensure that education systems respond to industry skills needs and requirements at a macro and micro level. This includes empowering education providers to partner with industries, businesses and communities to meet local and regional needs.
  • Design and develop competencies and qualifications that reflect what is required in the workplace, now and in the future. Work with industry leaders to address current and future needs. Look beyond the current work. Prepare individuals to succeed in the future labour market.
  • Establish a platform for sharing information on careers and job opportunities so that students and job seekers can make more informed choices.
  • Finally, capitalise on the momentum from the crisis and the appetite for reform and innovation to reshape knowledge, skills and competencies that are acquired by people and taught by education providers.


While there is a risk posed by the crisis, there are also tremendous opportunities created for the workers/job seekers, businesses, education providers and governments. 

Seizing on these opportunities and accelerating the need to innovate and support workers, job seekers and employers will ensure that both businesses and education institutions survive and thrive well into the future. It will be a win-win outcome for everyone!

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