Active learning now the focus for the workplace

Degrees will continue to have their place but employers are now keen on education and training that can have an immediate impact

The Leaving Cert may play a big part in determining how young people join the world of work but learning in the workplace is changing dramatically. Photograph: iStock

The 2024 Leaving Cert is in full swing and for thousands of students this is a significant qualification that will play a big part in determining how they join the world of work. So far, their educational pathway has been clear and known. What’s much less certain is the shape of the learning that has still to come as their careers unfold.

Executive education and professional and job-specific training have always been part of the employment picture. However, in most cases, there came a point at which the heavy lifting around qualifications stopped. Now, the speed of workplace change is turning this on its head. Those keen to stay in employment up to retirement age will have to upskill like never before if they want to hold on to their jobs.

This sounds pretty stark but it’s a reality that has already hit home to one worker in the financial services sector. In his 40s (with a good primary degree but no further qualifications), he’s out of a job because his back-office role has been erased over the last year by technology and, specifically, AI.

Just how fast things are changing is reflected in one statistic from the latest dive into the future of lifelong learning by higher education consultants, Carrington Crisp, which works with third-level institutions around the world including TCD, UCC, University of Ulster and the Atlantic Technological University in Ireland. It shows that the skills employees need for a given position have shifted by about 25 per cent since 2015 and this is expected to double by 2027, raising questions about the value of traditional linear qualifications.


Time was the acquisition of the knowledge that underpins commercial life followed as predictable a pattern as the Leaving Cert. Certain postgraduate qualifications were considered essential if you wanted to get on in certain careers. What is changing is that employers are less willing to wait around for people to finish long courses. Instead, they want education and training with immediate impact.

This doesn’t spell the end for the heavy hitters among business qualifications, such as the MBA, but it has implications for how these courses are delivered, says Carrington Crisp director Andrew Crisp. While universities and business schools still have much to offer, he says that offer needs to reflect how demand is changing, how delivery is shifting and what learners want and when.

“New business models are putting the emphasis on value, speed and technology. Learning and development can’t ignore these trends,” he says.

“In the future, learning is more likely to be a ‘journey’ and not the destination it used to be when people more or less stopped education in their mid-20s. It’s likely to comprise a series of different qualifications from different providers across different platforms.

“Employers are looking for varied qualifications – some of which may not even be considered qualifications in the traditional sense – but which address an immediate need. So, someone starts a course on a Monday and by Friday they’re implementing what they’ve learned,” Crisp says.

“For example, familiarity with emerging technologies and technology skills is becoming critically important because of the pace of change. I’m not saying employees need to rush off and qualify as top-notch technology experts, but they will need sufficient knowledge to be able to speak the language if it’s relevant for their job.”

While about three in 10 employers have supported employees to follow degree programmes (such as MBAs) in the last two years, the Carrington Crisp report shows that degree participation rates lag other forms of employee education such as industry-specific certifications, short non-degree programmes and customised courses.

About 20 per cent of employers say they have embraced “micro credentials” (short bursts of learning on a particular topic)m a figure that looks surprisingly low given their supposed growing popularity. However, Crisp says this is more to do with the lack of a universal definition around what type of learning comes under this new heading.

Micro credentials don’t usually come with any specific academic qualification beyond a certificate of completion. However, this doesn’t seem to bother employers, Crisp says, as long as the piece of paper comes from a well-recognised academic “brand” with a reputation for quality teaching.

“Degrees aren’t about to disappear but the diversity of qualifications is likely to grow. Everything from certificates of completion to digital badges, CPD and professional credentials will be part of the future qualifications landscape,” Crisp says.

Sticking with the theme of learning for now as well as for the future, former chief executive turned leadership expert David Novak has just released a new book (published by Harvard Business Review Press) called How Leaders Learn.

In his view, the secret to leadership success (based on his own experience and from talking to hundreds of business leaders for his How Leaders Lead podcast) is putting learning at the centre of everything. Novak uses the term “active learning” and says that when the chips are down, it’s the characteristic that differentiates the world’s most successful leaders.

Active learners seek out ideas and insights and pair them with action and execution. Getting there involves mastering three behaviours, Novak says.

The first is to learn from anyone and any experience with something interesting or valuable to offer. The second is to maintain an open, curious mind and strong interpersonal relationships because we learn most from others. The third is to learn by doing the things that need doing or have the potential to make the biggest difference.