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Preparing for the future is no easy task. There is a growing consensus that we need to do more to help workers navigate the shifting sands of the labour market. But what skills will they need in the future? And how should educators, employers and policy makers respond?

To help decision makers think more laterally about the future of work, the RSA developed four scenarios for 2035. We worked with Skills Development Scotland to run workshops with a group of learning providers, employers, policy makers and trade unions to engage with these scenarios and explore the consequences they could have for skills and learning in Scotland. Our ultimate aim was to produce versions of the scenarios that could better inform a vision for the Scottish skills system in 2035.

Here’s an overview of the scenarios:

  • The Big Tech Economy: what if technology develops at a rapid pace and leads to widespread automation, alongside tech companies entering new markets?
  • The Empathy Economy: what if technology makes emotional work more important while augmenting human capabilities?
  • The Precision Economy: what if data-driven technologies flood the economy, subjecting workers to new levels of algorithmic oversight and spurring the growth of gig economy platforms?
  • The Exodus Economy: what if another economic recession causes technological progress to stall?

We aimed to preserve what made the RSA’s original scenarios distinct and divergent visions of the future, while incorporating new insights about their consequences for the Scottish skills system. Here’s how we envisioned each of the scenarios playing out in Scotland.   

The Big Tech Economy

Demand for hi-tech skills in machine learning and cybersecurity surge. But given the rapid pace of technological change, workers need a range of meta-skills such as resilience, adaptability and a growth mindset to frequently reskill and remain relevant. But not everyone is a coder. Workers in the wider ecosystem providing services such as legal advice must also upskill to keep up with the latest developments in tech. Workers need to know how to translate technology to meet societal objectives.

Older workers particularly struggle to adapt to these changes but are expected to work until their mid-70s due to increases in the state pension age. Women also don’t fare well in this world of ‘tech bros’ and the Scottish government has realised too late that it needs to do more to promote science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) from a young age.

The education system itself is radically transformed by new tech. In universities, mid-level lecturers are replaced by holograms of Harvard professors and course curricula are now defined by world-renowned Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Career paths are hollowed out: the roles that remain are lower level teaching assistants who support seminar discussions. On-the-job learning gets an upgrade, with the use of immersive technologies such as virtual reality widely used to aid training in sectors such as construction.

To help those who have been displaced, employment advisors in the “Job Centre 2.0” use platforms that leverage AI and labour market data to offer personalised coaching to job seekers. Tech companies offer some token support with retraining through corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, but the onus is on individuals to contribute more to the cost of their learning. New financing models are imported from Silicon Valley, not unlike the Lambda School where workers pay a percentage of their earnings if they land a high paying job.

The Empathy Economy

While technology has disrupted people’s working lives significantly, there are many opportunities to transition into new hi-tech and hi-touch roles (e.g. social care workers, yoga teachers). But concerns are raised about the capacity of the skills system to keep up with rapidly increasing demand for retraining.

The Scottish government works in partnership with employers, unions, colleges universities and training bodies to gear up its efforts. Alongside support to upskill and reskill, workers at risk of technological disruption are provided with personalised career guidance.

Teaching is now one of the most in-demand occupations – and many teachers themselves have had to upskill to equip learners with the skills needed to succeed in this future. Teachers see improved pay and job satisfaction, while new technologies such as AI are used to automate repetitive tasks such as marking tests, freeing up time to focus on the human side of teaching.

From coding to caring to carpentry, the jobs on offer have very different skills requirements – but those that succeed have a core set of skills, including emotional intelligence, creativity, problem solving and communication. To equip learners with these skills, learning providers have started to work more directly with employers to deliver real-world learning experiences that pair technical and social skills.  

However, some people struggle to find work, especially those in remote rural areas. Much of the jobs growth is underpinned by the disposable income of professionals who live in urban areas, and the onus is on individuals to uproot and move to one of Scotland’s major cities.

The Precision Economy

Digital badges – micro-credentials that provide employers with a new way to recognise and validate skills, including those developed through on-the-job learning – are widely adopted by Scottish businesses. This opens doors to workers previously excluded from professional occupations by allowing firms to hire based on competencies rather than formal qualifications. And this helps to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational education, with the latter providing many of the badges that employers are looking for.

Scotland’s finest management schools and vocational training providers are involved in developing digital badge schemes. However, some learning providers struggle to adapt and university degrees are ‘unbundled’. Four-year degrees are abandoned as learners eye up modular courses that can be completed part-time while they work. Learning provision is now bite-sized, on-demand and increasingly gamified, which has created a divide between those who know how to use the system and those who don’t. A digital divide is drawn along generational lines.

Data literacy is critical. Analytics platforms emerge to help workers to understand how data is used to make decisions about them. But people also need the skills to critically engage with statistics, so compulsory educational courses in data analysis are launched, from early years to university.

The growth of gig economy platforms has left many workers lacking sufficient training opportunities. The Scottish government increases funding for Individual Training Accounts (which currently entitle some Scottish workers in low paid jobs to £200 per year for work-related training courses) and extends eligibility to all workers, including a significant number of workers who are now self-employed.

The Exodus Economy

A wave of austerity hits the Scottish skills system. Faced with a public sector funding crisis, the Scottish government focuses its limited resources on skills and training that meet the immediate needs of the economy. Funding for university degrees in arts and humanities sees further cuts. Many institutions are forced to close or consolidate as learners widely reject courses that have failed to deliver on their promise of lucrative graduate jobs.

A renewed emphasis is placed on excellence in Scotland’s higher education and further education colleges. Demand for work-based learning and apprenticeships increases as more workers look to develop themselves as skilled tradespeople. Business acumen and other aptitudes that enable self-sufficiency also become increasingly valuable.

Others turn to D.I.Y. upskilling and sign up to peer learning groups that support each other using online resources such as MOOCs. Learning providers support this movement by developing Scotland-specific courses and facilitation toolkits, while university campuses become ‘hubs’ for lifelong learning after being co-opted by grassroots groups.

Those who can navigate the Exodus Economy find resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness and perseverance to be critical attributes. However, many workers are left dejected and stuck in low-paid jobs in increasingly deprived urban areas.

Scotland 2035 – A Human Future

The obvious question is ‘which one of these scenarios is most likely?’. But the scenarios aren’t designed to be complete predictions. While the future remains uncertain, it’s plausible to suggest that the Scottish skills system in 2035 will probably have some characteristics of all four scenarios. The real question for the Scottish skills system is how can it harness the opportunities these scenarios highlight and mitigate the risks?

We’ve published an article on Medium, which outlines in more detail the discussions we had about how the scenarios could impact skills and learning in Scotland, and puts forward some questions for Skills Development Scotland to consider as they continue to develop a vision for the future.

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