The Agile World of Upskilling

An architect, a cost consultant and a structural engineer walked into a bar……

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but when I asked my husband how his world of work was evolving, these are the professions he chose and as he reeled off the job titles, I was minded of the old ‘walked into a bar’ joke.

But to the point of this piece.  Earlier in the term, I wrote a blog exploring some of the theories about the future of the workplace set out by Daniel Susskind (2020). My closing comments of that piece focused on the idea that the world of secondary education is beginning to really embrace the development of skills, over simply covering content.  In this piece I would like to expand on that theme, not by considering how we ensure our pupils develop the skills (that is for another piece) but by considering how exactly workplaces have and continue to change and what this means for the future workforce.

Let us consider the job of navigator in the Air Force. In the era before technology was used in aeroplanes, the job was highly skilled and specialist.  Navigators might have had the same basic training as the pilot, but without the navigator by their side the pilot was blind.  The flight plan was mapped out literally on a paper map and the pilot was given directions as they flew. Fly forward to 2021 and the job of navigator is still in existence but many fighter planes are single-seater now.  The navigator plots the route electronically and with the assistance of GPS the pilot can follow the plan from the instrument panel. So, training as a navigator in the 1950s was vastly different from training in 2021 even though the basic aptitudes are the same.  

Which leads to the idea of developing transferable skills, which is something we discuss frequently with our pupils in school. 

I am reminded of the film The Full Monty and not the scenes for which it is probably most renowned. For readers who have not seen it, set in Sheffield in the 1990s, the film centres on a group of ex-steel workers.  In a series of scenes set in the local job centre, we see the men receiving support and ‘upskilling’ to prepare them for other jobs.  It is Gerald, the much ridiculed ex-foreman of the steelworks, who demonstrates that his skills of leadership and staff management are most easily transferred to a new job than the manual skills of his team.  You could replace The Full Monty with Billy Elliot or Brassed Off (1980s and mining but with similar themes of transferable skills underlying the big screen plots).

The generally accepted list of 21st Century skills are: Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Information literacy, Media literacy, Technology literacy, Flexibility, Leadership, Initiative, Productivity and Social skills.  

I wouldn’t suggest that many of these skills aren’t built into our curriculum already, but  some of these skills are difficult to teach discreetly; how does one teach productivity or flexibility for example? The simple answer is by giving daily opportunities for students to time manage, work with different people, in different environments and to sometimes fail.



After all, how else do we teach our students that they may not get the job they applied for, or the scholarship they coveted, or the grade they worked hard for. And more importantly how else do we teach them that in the modern world of work you need to be agile and that sometimes the job you thought you had trained for now needs different skills, but the same aptitudes.

Before I wrap this up, I know you’re wondering about the architect, cost consultant and structural engineer! My husband’s prediction is that in the future these three roles could be carried out by one person, rather than three. At the moment, the architect designs the building, the cost consultant works out how much it will cost to build and the structural engineer makes sure the design will actually result in a building that stands up (with apologies for my oversimplification of these professions!).  With the rapid development of software which models buildings and databases containing costs of components, it may not be long before an architect can design, cost and model a building.  All that is required are the tech skills to manipulate the software successfully – and of course, agility, flexibility, technology literacy and collaboration.