Is the UK public ready to be upskilled?

by Fiona Camenzuli People & Organisation Network Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Email +44 (0)7739 876723

This is part one of a six-part article series exploring the UK public’s feelings towards the future of work, following our recent Upskilling Hopes and Fears survey.

Recent PwC research has revealed a paradox in the way the UK public feels about skills.

On the one hand, many people are conscious the world of work is changing, with just over a third (36%) agreeing that “traditional employment won't be around in the future”.

But elsewhere, our research reveals a frightening lack of appetite for upskilling in response to the transformations people see happening around them. Almost 40% are unwilling to learn new skills or re-train to remain employable in the future. This is significantly higher than the global average of 23%, and makes the UK one of the least prepared to upskill out of all 20 countries we surveyed.

So what’s behind the public’s hesitation to upskill?

1. They don’t think automation will affect them

Our research suggests the UK public might not fully understand the extent to which automation will impact their lives: they are the least likely to think their jobs are at risk. Just one in five think their jobs will be obsolete in five years, compared with two in five globally. While our positive outlook isn’t in itself a bad thing, it might be misplaced: PwC research shows 30% of jobs are at risk of automation by the mid-2030s. This is particularly worrying when you consider that UK workers are 20% less confident in their ability to adapt to new technologies entering the workplace, compared to the global average.

2. Training opportunities are expensive

It’s not just a lack of awareness that is dissuading the UK public from upskilling: training opportunities don’t come cheap. Almost half (44%) of respondents don’t believe they’ll earn enough to pay for further education or retraining. Cost anxieties are worryingly common among the young: 50% of 18-34 year olds told us they can’t afford the training or education they need. This is affecting their employment opportunities, but it also has negative implications for the UK’s future economy.

3. The digital divide is holding people back

While COVID-19 has accelerated many people’s digital development, it’s also exacerbated inequalities in the workplace. While only a quarter of respondents overall were unable to undertake any learning in the last 12 months, the picture was much bleaker for semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, with 45% unable to upskill this year. And for those who did manage to squeeze in training, it was most commonly a case of learning on the job.

A third of respondents lack access to technology, which limits their opportunities to develop skills. Concerning, too, is the fact that the “internet generation” is not immune to this barrier: 49% of 18-34 year olds lack access to technology. And there are shocking inequalities between ethnic groups in terms of their access to technology: 43% of workers from ethnic minority backgrounds lack access to technology, compared with 33% of white respondents.

Employers have an important role to play

While everyone should be in control of their own development journey, employers have a crucial role to play. They need to give employees opportunities to gain the skills to use advanced and ever-changing technologies in the workplace and their daily lives.

Not everyone has to learn to code, but many people need to understand and manage artificial intelligence, data analytics, autonomous vehicles and other technologies we can't yet predict - those emerging now and those that will be created in the future.

Upskilling is not simply a matter of teaching people how to use a new device. That device may be obsolete by next year. The upskilling experience involves learning how to think, act and thrive in a digital world that is sustainable over time.

by Fiona Camenzuli People & Organisation Network Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Email +44 (0)7739 876723