The pandemic has changed how companies operate and people work. It has also changed how they acquire the skills and professional development they need to do their jobs and emphasised just how rapidly the world of work can change.
What seems clear from a piece of research produced here at the beginning of the month by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is that Irish employees are cognisant of this volatility and recognise that upskilling is key to keeping up in a rapidly evolving working environment. The pandemic provided the impetus for over a third of those sampled to consider upskilling or reskilling, while 45 per cent said they would like the opportunity to retrain to work in a more progressive sector such as technology.
Cost, time and confidence were the main reasons preventing people from making a change and the HEA is trying to help by providing higher education places under the Springboard+ and Human Capital Initiative (HCI). The latter was introduced in 2019 to assist graduates to retrain to meet the priority needs of businesses in emerging technologies and in areas with skills shortages.
"We have tried to remove a lot of barriers for people who may feel daunted by a return to education," says Vivienne Patterson, head of skills, engagement and statistics at the HEA. "All of the courses are free or subsidised and the majority of them offer blended learning options."
Health innovation, logistics and online retail were three sectors that grew strongly during the pandemic and all are included in the Springboard+ and HCI initiatives.
In July, business education research consultancy Carrington Crisp published a report on the future of lifelong and executive learning in conjunction with LinkedIn. It sampled the views of more than 2,000 employees and 500 employers in 22 countries, and the message that came through loud and clear is that Covid has fundamentally changed the "how" of course delivery, with almost 80 per cent of employers now seeing online learning as their go-to method for employee development.
Mass migration to digital learning over the last 17 months has happened much faster than expected and, for businesses and individuals alike, the transition was positive, saving them time and money. The net result is that both sides want more remote learning, while employees also want more flexibility around how they learn and more personalisation of what they learn.
The survey also emphasised that professional development is fast becoming a lifelong task and that a primary qualification is only the start of a process that will see employees continuously add to their qualifications throughout their working lives.
This is going to require big changes in organisations’ training ecosystems with the emphasis shifting to faster, flexible, online and informal skills acquisition. Employee development will also be more closely linked to organisational goals.
This shift raises some fundamental questions about the future of business education. Will there still be a place for traditional courses and will qualifications such as MBAs remain a must-have for those with their eye on a senior position?
In broad terms, the answer is yes and the demand for business-related education is expected to increase rather than diminish. What's going to change dramatically, however, is how people get their qualifications. Where they get them from is also going to matter more in the years ahead, Carrington Crisp co-founder Andrew Crisp told The Irish Times.
“Provider location is declining in importance as technology reduces the impact of geography on learning, but this will make brand ever more important as people will want to learn from quality providers with an international reputation to ensure the portability of their qualifications,” he says. “Employers will also look for brands on CVs when hiring and when selecting the partners they want to work with to develop their staff.”
Crisp spends a lot of time talking to companies, employees and course providers about professional development and he also taps into organisations such as the European Foundation for Management Development, the US Graduate Management Admission Council and the worldwide Executive MBA Council to gauge opinion and sentiment about where business education is headed.
Carrington says change was already under way before Covid because many traditional courses were designed for a commercial world that no longer existed. On top of this evolving technologies, digitalisation and an ageing workforce lacking digital know-how had created a growing demand for short, high impact courses.
“It’s not just the learning provider that may change in the future, but the qualifications too,” Crisp says. “Masters degrees and MBAs remain popular, but they are not the only choice. Digital badges, diplomas and certificates are all options to recognise shorter, more focused study.
“In relation to MBAs, I think the big question is if they are still delivering what employers need in terms of content? MBAs have traditionally been very finance oriented whereas now business is all about digital.
"Technology is changing so rapidly that what you learn on a four-year computer science degree in year one can be out of date by the time you graduate," Crisp adds. "That's why frequent, quick burst courses are becoming more relevant and people may no longer study in blocks of three or four years. They may study a bit then work a bit then study a bit and complete a degree over six or eight years. Interestingly, Australia has just announced a big study into micro-credentials around what they might look like and how they'd be granted and recognised."