Automation and Ageing in Northern Ireland and Scotland – A successful skills system will need to be far more ambitious

A truly successful skills system could bring vast benefits to Northern Ireland and Scotland. Both are on the cusp of significant changes, as the impact of automation and technological change combines with an ageing population. This could carry significant dividends, driving productivity and boosting economic growth, and bringing new opportunities for individuals and employers. But there are also big risks. As jobs are reshaped by new technology, people who do not have the right skills risk being unable to obtain secure, well-paying work or even being pushed out of the labour market altogether. Technological and demographic change could narrow social inequalities, if we prepare and respond correctly. The skills system must be at the heart of readying our societies to seize these new opportunities successfully and mitigate the risks.

Automation will transform many occupations, and the skills required to fill them, across the economy. We have outlined that approximately 49 per cent of jobs in Northern Ireland and 46 per cent in Scotland have a high potential for automation. This will unlikely see reductions in jobs but it will see huge change – our analysis shows that only 5 per cent of existing roles are fully-automatable but over 60 per cent of existing roles have a significant proportion of tasks that could be automated. This will require a significant shift – if not a revolution – in lifelong learning provision. 79.79 per cent of the workforce of 2030 in Northern Ireland, and 79.69 per cent in Scotland, have already left compulsory education. Looking to 2040, 57.7 per cent of the workforce in Northern Ireland and 57.28 per cent in Scotland have already left compulsory education.

Furthermore, the proportion of working age adults in the population will decrease, meaning both Northern Ireland and Scotland will need to get the most out of a proportionally smaller number of workers. To keep pace with an increasing pensioner-age population, Northern Ireland would need an additional 210,000 working age people, over and above projections, and Scotland an additional 410,000 working age people by 2030. It is crucial that we make lifelong learning a reality for all, to help workers and employers navigate automation and demographic change.

In recent years, the skills system in both Northern Ireland and Scotland has been rightly focused on avoiding the spectre of large-scale youth unemployment. But in an age of rapid demographic and technological change, a successful skills system will need to be far more ambitious. It must focus on equipping young people with the skills to obtain not just any job, but a secure job with prospects, and ensuring everyone leaves the skills system with qualifications and the foundations for future learning.

Genuine lifelong learning will be central to our future success. A successful skills system that meets the challenges and opportunities of automation and ageing will need a sustained focus on mid-career workers and in particular, with a unifying principie of boosting career progression rates. Worryingly, investment in the skills of those who have already begun their career has been decreasing, with all parts of the skills system – both public and private – pulling back from boosting the skills of existing workers. Equally, too often, employers only invest in workers who already have high skill levels. Given that automation will significantly reconfigure the jobs we do, this must change.

Of course, a successful skills system will need employers at the heart of it. Employer engagement in skills is currently too low, and there are too many obstacles to employers who want to invest in their employees’ skills, and too many employers do not invest in – or underutilise – their workers’ skills. Given the changing nature of employment patterns, with increasing self-employment and insecure work, and the potential impacts of age distribution in the shape of the future workforce, this has to change. The skills system needs to develop a new partnership with employers in Northern Ireland and Scotland to bring employers and learners into the heart of a much more responsive and flexible skills system. Equally, if increasing gig and self-employment is a trend to stay, the skills system will need to be able to work for employees that do not have an employer in the traditional sense.

To achieve all this will require a more coherent, more strategic skills system. We will need to ensure precious resource is not wasted in duplication, poor matching of supply and demand, and non-responsive curricula in response to the changing needs of the economy. The mismatch between supply and demand has already been well laid out by research including the Northern Ireland Skills Barometer (see UUPEC 2017). We will also need to see a skills system with fair access at its heart, including in investment patterns, maximising and realising the potential of learners from across all groups.

The prize for getting this right is substantial. Northern Ireland and Scotland face unprecedented opportunities to boost their economies while narrowing existing inequalities. A skills system that empowers workers of all ages, sectors and socio-economic backgrounds could help to tackle low productivity, reduce poverty, increase pay and progression and help people get secure, well-paying, and higher-quality jobs.

This report, the second of three IPPR reports looking at the skills system in Scotland and Northern Ireland, sets out what a successful skills system would look like. We have focused on measures of success rather than recommendations for change. We will build on this report, and our previous work in this area, to develop our third and final report of this series, which will set out what we believe needs to change, and what needs to stay the same, to deliver a truly 21st century skills system.


For young people, a successful skills system would:

  • retain greater numbers of young people within the skills system for longer, whether in college, university, apprenticeship or other in-work training
  • increase the number of young people reaching genuinely positive destinations increase participation rates from those who leave the skills system for
  • insecure work or jobs with lower prospects
  • reduce and minimise the proportion of young people who exit the skills system with no, or low, qualifications.

For mid-career learners, a successful skills system would:

  • increase participation rates in the skills system from employees of all ages and at stages of their career, with flexible learning options from the most intense to the most part-time
  • contribute to increased career progression rates, particularly prioritising moving those in low paid work into higher paying jobs
  • develop new proactive skills programmes aimed at providing ‘progression ladders’ up to new careers for people at risk of being displaced out of the labour market, ensuring their skill levels are protected through disruptiontrack and recognise prior learning across all component parts of the skills system and throughout careers, offering proactive career-long advice and guidance.

For employers, a successful skills system would:

  • secure higher levels of employers investing in skills, with higher levels of total investment, in order to boost productivity – improving individual employer performance and the economy as
  • increase levels of skills utilisation for employers across all sizes, with greater levels of public funding contingent on employer action
  • deliver greater employer investment in low-skilled workers, workers in the SME sector, and self-employed and gig-economy workers.

As a whole, a successful skills system would:

  • engage the whole of the population in meaningful learning, education and training throughout their careers to maximise and realise their potential
  • reduce needless duplication between different component parts of the system
    deliver the widespread adoption and embedding of new technologies in the delivery of learning
  • implement new responsive and modular curricula shared across parts of the skills system
    increase the take-up of digital skills learning across the skills system and across age groups
    deliver greater levels of conditionality on investment of public funds against tests of clear impact (such as skills utilisation, increased pay and progression and improved productivity)
    create ‘smart’ information, advice and guidance for learners, that tracks learning across time, and tailors proactive interventions to individuals
  • increase participation rates from self-employed and gig economy workers and those in insecure employment
  • see greater progress in delivering more equal access and outcomes for learners in the skills system from all backgrounds and groups.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Preparing for automation and ageing: A successful 21st century skills system in Northern Ireland and Scotland | IPPR


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