Upskilling post-Covid - the business of education, or the education of business?

All around the world, young people have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 in the labor market. Here’s what the business community can do to respond to the current education and skills crisis.

May 27, 2021 by David Armstrong, PwC
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7 minutes read
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Students working in a public university's laboratory in Malaysia. Credit: Nafise Motlaq/World Bank
Students working in a public university's laboratory in Malaysia.
Credit: Nafise Motlaq/World Bank

This blog was first published on LinkedIn.

We’ve got a serious global education and skills crisis on our hands...

“It’s history!” said my 12 year old daughter. “Are you serious?” I responded. She had her school tablet on the kitchen table and her excellent history teacher was waxing lyrical about Bonnie Prince Charlie. But she also had Ed Sheeran playing (louder) on her smartphone and, at the same time, she was practising her football keepy uppies with a firm eye on her post-lockdown training resuming.

Sure, mine’s a first world problem of sorts - my daughter’s lucky to have a school tablet, a smart phone and someone like me poking her in the right direction from time to time. But even so, it’s not exactly the full-on education experience I was hoping she’d have at this stage in her life. And I know my personal experience is mirrored by millions of others in the UK, Ireland and beyond.

My excellent PwC colleague Sally Jeffery, who leads our global education and skills practice, puts it starkly:

“The COVID-19 outbreak has been like a meteor striking a gently spinning ancient planet!”

Sally Jeffery, PwC Global Education Leader

The data in support of this are very clear:

  • Over a billion children globally have suffered from ‘education poverty’ during the pandemic. The World Bank and the OECD reckon that 1.6bn children worldwide were out of school at the peak of the pandemic in 2020. Some of these managed to navigate remote learning successfully. But many didn’t as they didn’t have access to digital learning resources and lacked the support at home and personal resilience to learn on their own (World Bank, 2021; OECD, 2020).
  • We’ve got the makings of a youth unemployment pandemic on our hands. All around the world, young people have been hit hardest by Covid in the labor market. For example, in the UK, over 800k people left company payrolls over the past year, and nearly all of these (80%) were under the age of 35. Linked to this, World Bank data show that youth unemployment rates are generally 2-3 times higher than average rates, with some countries having shockingly high rates (e.g. nearly 60% in South Africa, World Bank, 2021).
  • Employers can’t find the skills they need to invest, grow and create jobs. PwC’s 24th Annual CEO Survey found that three quarters of top business people globally said finding the right skills was a massive threat to their businesses. Likewise, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report found that 94% of business leaders reported that they expected employees to need to develop new skills on the job, a sharp uptick from 65% in 2018.

The business community has an important role to play in responding to the crisis...

I reckon business often takes a hammering in the press and public policy debates in the UK; sometimes portrayed as greedy, self-serving and not interested in the greater good.

In my experience there are definitely business people out there with dodgy motives and bad behaviors - but I’ve also worked in other sectors, and the same was true there. And, in my experience, all of the forward-looking businesses worth their salt these days are driven by higher order aspirations that go far beyond the bottom line and commercial gain.

In PwC, we call it our ‘Purpose’ - ‘to build trust in society and solve important problems’.

In this context, it’s fair enough to ask what role the business community has in responding to the current education and skills crisis. We’re not educationalists. We don’t do pedagogy (albeit the emergence of business “Academies” like these PwC ones in Northern Ireland and Singapore are driven in part by a frustration amongst employers with the outputs from existing systems).

But surely there’s a role for business in responding to this crisis? I’d argue with an emphatic ‘yes’, and so would many out there in the real world! For example, my close PwC colleague Quentin Cole has led some brilliant research on the Future of Government, including a survey of 4,000 people in the UK; this found a that lack of skills is the number one barrier to social mobility in the UK, and there's a strong message too from the public about private sector businesses stepping up in response.

So I’d say there are at least three ways in which business can make a legitimate contribution to the global education and skills crisis:

  • Investment - right now, all businesses are facing a massive challenge in relation to how they respond to Covid and the wider global megatrends, in particular, the transformational role technology is having on their markets, supply chains and customers. This means that businesses across the board are having to engage in a radical upskilling of their own staff. They’re putting hard cash and in-kind resources up for this. And, actually, they’re doing so not out of a sense of the greater good to drive societal outcomes, but rather because their very survival as businesses depends on it. The PwC story on this, as an example, is called “New World New Skills” - it’s pretty major, transformative, digitally-focused stuff, backed up by proper resources.
  • Partnerships - although businesses have been upskilling out of commercial necessity, we actually do enjoy working with others, and generally I think we’re pretty good at it. In PwC we talk about our ‘convening power’ and, although I wouldn’t get carried away with it, I definitely think there’s something to it. For example, at our “Big Skills Reset” International Development session in November, we convened a really impressive line-up of leaders and practitioners who were all working in different education and skills partnerships, hosted by my close colleague Zlatina Loudjeva.

    More recently, it’s been a great privilege for me to be working alongside the Global Partnership for Education who have been proactively bringing together business leaders - under their excellent “Raise Your Hand” (RYH) initiative - to ensure that business wherewithal is brought to bear on the education and skills crisis. What’s particularly impressive is not just the fact that GPE is doing this, but also the intelligent way in which they’re engaging businesses to bring them to the table - it feels like they ‘get’ what makes us tick. Through RYH, by the way, GPE is seeking to raise at least $5b from world leaders to support education system transformation in lower-income countries — another kind of much-needed investment in education.
  • Delivery - although we’re not educationalists, businesses occupy a variety of strategic positions in the education and skills systems. This is legitimate and I firmly believe we have an important part to play. For example, for the past 10 years I’ve had the great privilege of working closely with colleagues in the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) on the amazing Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) program, which aims to improve education outcomes amongst over 1.5m marginalized girls in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. It’s a true privilege to be involved in this, and I’m very proud of what my PwC colleagues, alongside FCDO and other actors, are managing to achieve. There are lots of other examples of businesses getting stuck into front line delivery, and doing things ‘on the ground’ that I genuinely believe other organizations would struggle with.

Policy makers need to act now...it’s urgent

I’ve argued here that business has a legitimate role to play in responding to the education and skills crisis. Fine, but ‘so what?’...what should policy makers and others involved in education and skills systems take away from this:

  • Engage business - yes, the commercial imperative is paramount for business people like me, but many of us also care about Purpose, systems and the greater good too, and are perfectly happy to try to bring resources and skills to the table in the face of this global crisis. As I’ve said, the work of the Global Partnership for Education in this regard is excellent, and I’d encourage others to follow their lead.
  • Work together - the crisis is so deep and so wide that no one organization or type of organization can address it effectively on their own. Collaboration across different sectors, playing to everyone’s strengths, will be key. This will probably involve some of us, across different sectors, “getting over ourselves” a bit, and becoming comfortable with new partnerships and ways of working.
  • Don’t go back - I started off with that lovely quote from my great PwC colleague Sally Jeffery; it alludes to the fact that many of the norms, expectations and practices in the education and skills sectors were formed during a different time and in a radically different set of circumstances. What we mustn’t do as we move on from Covid is try to go back and re-establish those as business-as-usual. I’ve sniffed out hints of that from some educationalists and skills practitioners - “Can’t wait to get back to the way things were around here” etc. I’d say an emphatic 'no' to this.

    Covid has changed everything and we must resist the temptation to go back wholesale to the way things were. Sure we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The planet has been knocked off its axis by the meteor, it’s spinning in a wobbly, uneven way; and it now needs to get back on its axis but spin faster going forward. So let’s not waste the opportunity this disruption has provided to recalibrate education and skill systems across the world. And let’s do this together...and quickly!
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