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Making the shift from formal education to lifelong learning

With reskilling in full flight, the shelf-life of skills getting shorter and shorter, and the predicted number of jobs people will work in their lifetime increasing, the only way to stay ahead is via a constant quest for knowledge. Ready to make the shift from formal education to lifelong learning? Start here. 
Dom Murray
2021-01-27

You learn something new every day. This saying is perhaps more relevant now than it ever has been. Factors such as the 24/7 news cycle, unfiltered access to information, and rapid rates of societal and technological change mean we are constantly flooded with new information — for better and for worse.  

Given this, it makes sense that we’ve been focusing on learning, unlearning, and relearning and growth mindsets in recent blogs. These elements all lead to one logical conclusion: making the shift from formal education to lifelong learning. 

These days, it’s no longer enough to complete a degree and assume those skills will remain constant for the rest of your working life. Just think, algorithms change by the day, new technologies are constantly adopted, and new scientific discoveries are always just around the corner. Without lifelong learning, your knowledge is stuck in the past. 

Rather, with reskilling in full flight, the shelf-life of skills getting shorter and shorter, and the predicted number of jobs people will work in their lifetime increasing, the only way to stay ahead is via a constant quest for knowledge. In other words, lifelong learning. 

With a focus on sustainability — both in terms of jobs and L&D’s position in the global marketplace — we’ll examine the state of lifelong learning, look at why credentials can’t keep up, and cast an eye to the future through the lens of superjobs and microcredentials. 

Ready to make the shift from formal education to lifelong learning? Start here. 

The state of lifelong learning 

You’ve probably heard the term ‘lifelong learning’ more and more over recent years as the concept has gained traction, so it might help to begin with a simple definition. At its core, lifelong learning is self-explanatory. The US Department of Education and Science defines it as “the continuous and voluntary pursuit of knowledge, building of skills, and improvement of abilities for personal or professional reasons.” 

Put another way, lifelong learning is all about updating. This means continually seeking out new knowledge, updating your beliefs, and embracing learning opportunities whenever possible. Lifelong learning is not assuming your learning journey is over once you graduate high school or finish university — there’s always something new to learn!

Of course, this shift towards lifelong learning should not mean dismissing formal education entirely, as it still plays a crucial role in education. Instead, lifelong learning is an essential supplement to formal education. 

A recent study by Deloitte shows why lifelong learning is critical to both personal and professional development. The study found that “Millennials credit school or university studies with 23% of the skills, knowledge and experience they currently have or use in their jobs...on-the-job training from employers or from continuous professional development carries much more weight: In combination, these two sources are estimated to contribute 52% of what millennials draw on at work.” 

These findings are startling, clearly demonstrating the shift from formal education to lifelong learning is well underway. Put simply, 77% of the skills that Millennials draw on in the workforce come from somewhere other than formal education. As such, younger generations rely on continual, on-the-job learning to stay up-to-date with changing skill requirements. 

Ultimately, Deloitte’s findings predict that “the role of employer as educator will take on even greater significance” in the coming years. This prediction signals the role employers will need to play by providing relevant, timely, and targeted lifelong learning opportunities. 

Given these findings, it should come as little surprise that a 2019 study by Finder revealed that 40% of respondents are not using their degree, with a further 28.8% saying they can’t find a job in a relevant field. Again, this makes a compelling argument for continued, lifelong learning beyond formal education. 

Despite this, formal credentials are by no means dead. According to Credly, 82% of adults say that a work credential was very useful for getting a job, while 80% say their credentials helped them keep a job, and 81% say their credentials keep them marketable to employers or clients. 

In many ways, this shows that employers have been unable to keep up with a changing education landscape. While Millennials credit formal education with only 23% of the skills they use in the workforce, 82% of adults still believe their credentials played a critical role in securing a job. These statistics show a sizeable disconnect between the expectations and realities of formal learning. Closing this gap will require a concerted mindset shift from businesses, employees, and formal education providers. 

Credentials can’t keep up

There are many reasons for the ongoing shift from formal education to lifelong learning. However, in general, it comes down to one simple fact: formal education can’t keep up with the rapid rate of change in the modern workplace. 

According to IBM, 120 million people will require upskilling or reskilling in the next three years. McKinsey takes this a step further, estimating that “375 million workers — or roughly 14% of the global workforce — may need to switch occupational categories as digitisation, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work.” 

Additionally, Forbes finds that the average person will work 15 different jobs over their lifetime, while the average time required to close skills gaps in a workplace has increased from 3 days to 36 days over the last five years. On top of this, 51% of L&D teams planned to launch reskilling programs in 2020, with 48% believing their team is underskilled to deliver on urgent business requirements. 

Most alarming of all? The average shelf life of skills has now decreased to just six years, according to FYA. In the past, this number hovered around 15 years. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that 40% of degrees will soon be obsolete in Australia. After all, you may complete a four-year degree, only to find that many of the skills you acquired are already out-of-date, as the shelf life of your skills nears expiry. 

Whatever the scenario, one thing is clear: formal education can’t keep up with continually changing skill requirements. With upskilling and reskilling in full swing, constant, lifelong learning looms as the best way for forward-thinking L&D practitioners to future-proof their careers. 

Changing skill requirements have also heralded a shift from hard skills to soft skills, which we cover in greater detail in our blog on closing the L&D skills gap

The future? Superjobs and microcredentials 

If lifelong learning is the future, then it pays to ask, what will that future look like? Let’s examine the big and small of it, through the lens of superjobs and microcredentials. 

Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends report predicts the rise of ‘superjobs’, due largely to shifting skills requirements and the rise of AI. They define superjobs as “roles that combine work and responsibilities from multiple traditional jobs, using technology to both augment and broaden the scope of the work performed and involve a more complex set of domain, technical, and human skills.”

Expanding upon this definition, Deloitte explains that in contrast to traditional jobs, which prioritised “stable roles with written job descriptions”, superjobs will focus on “more flexible roles and less rigidly defined positions.” 

In many ways, this is the perfect encapsulation of the shift from formal education to lifelong learning. If people are expected to perform in superjobs, where flexibility is paramount and skills requirements are constantly evolving, then this will require a high level of adaptability and learning in the flow of work.

Additionally, microcredentials are poised to play a central role in the future of lifelong learning. According to Training AU, microcredentials are “certification-style qualifications that individuals choose to study to improve a skill found in a particular industry area...The key difference between microcredentialling and other qualifications offered by higher education institutions – such as certificates or bachelors – is that microcredentials are delivered as ‘bite-sized’ chunks; illustrating the proficiency in a particular skill.” 

Given other trends, the rise of microcredentials makes sense. With superjobs imminent, upskilling moving from ‘nice to have’ to ‘essential’, and the shelf life of skills getting shorter and shorter, microcredentials have emerged as a highly targeted way to bridge the skills gap and facilitate lifelong learning. 

A study by U2B shows why microcredentials are expected to be so important, finding that 64% of HR leaders believe the need for continuous lifelong learning will demand higher levels of education and more credentials. Further, 52% of employers believe that the majority of advanced degrees will be completed online in the future.

For more advice on embracing lifelong learning, be sure to check out our webinar on the future of skills and lifelong learning, as well as our blog detailing why we are lifelong learners

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