How can digital technology help create an agile skills system?

Josh Smith and Karen Tatham, Ufi VocTech Trust


17 03 2023


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Learning and Work Institute (L&W) and Ufi VocTech Trust (Ufi) are exploring how to use technology to help every adult in the UK get the skills they need to participate and benefit from employment. We are bringing together organisations, learners and thought leaders from across the adult education sector and beyond as part of “VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.” We are asking the question:

How can VocTech digital tools and pedagogies help narrow inequalities and ensure every adult can participate in learning throughout their working lives so that the UK has the skills it needs for an economy in transition?

We are working at a time of rapid change in the UK economy and labour market, where we see that the UK’s needs will not be met unless there is greater and more equitable access to skills.

We know that economic growth comes from a better skilled workforce, and that must include every part of the workforce. This means ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to develop skills for work through their lives, building a future economy and labour market where people aren’t just playing catch up but have the chance to thrive in new industries and sectors.

In our Discovery Blog series, we are summarising a range of discussions and conversations that are taking place with stakeholders across the four nations of the UK.  We are looking to hear about the real lived experience of learners and examine the practical challenges and solutions in adult vocational education. These blogs will then form the bedrock of our Discovery Paper, to be released in April, which will draw out all our new findings.

These blogs reflect a fraction of the conversations we are having and if any of the topics or themes explored in these blogs are of interest, please do get in touch via:


Our workshops on the 1st and 2nd of March explored how digital technology can support an agile skills system. Discussion covered the following areas: fragmentation and complexity characterise the skills system; the need for new evidence bases to underpin skills decision making in rapidly changing systems; changing core skills of digital, green and soft skills; and how we use technology to develop an open, adaptive learning culture for skills. The questions and provocations emerging from these themes will inform our thinking as we continue to shape the VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.

Digital technology and an agile skills system – key takeaways

Participants suggest they are seeing a more rapid pace of change in the type of skills demanded across all skill levels. This goes beyond the rise of digital. More complex workplaces require increased levels of ‘soft’ competencies and behaviours, more technical job roles, and a greater requirement for workers to understand how their jobs may change, and the future skills they may need. A responsive, adaptive skills system will become more critical. However, the current skills system is slow to respond to change, lacks an evidence base to support skills decision making, with education and training slow to adopt new technologies. A more robust evidence base for skills now, and in the future is needed, for example  NFER workforce projections to 2035.

People shared that the move to devolved skills at a national and combined authority level means there are more centres of skills control, all of whom are building their own evidence systems and skills pathway models. Positives included more localised, targeted skills support and innovation linked to area needs; but cautions were shared that the new devolved areas conflict with some existing geographic approaches to provision, and may duplicate or fragment the skills system further through the focus on local priorities. Contributors suggested we need a better understanding of how digital technology might support complex, multi-level, and multi-stakeholder processes.

Contributors welcomed the renewed focus of lifelong learning, but suggested several factors would be important in creating learning for a rapidly changing skills landscape. Here work in Scotland on lifelong learning was suggested as a possible model. Firstly, the national culture of learning in vocational qualifications tends to be a restrictive model, where employers train workers for a job-role skills set or health and safety requirement. In contrast expansive learning models train workers in skills they may not need now, but may need in the future, and promotes attitudes to learning which mean workers continually adapt to new job requirements. Learners need the confidence, mindset and understanding that reskilling and upskilling will be a normal cycle in employment.

So, what’s next?

We are following up from our workshops by holding a series of focus groups with providers, learners, non-learners and recent career changers. Together we will publish our findings in a series of articles which along with our own research will inform a white paper that sets out a programme of grant funding, partnerships, and advocacy.

Thank you to the workshop contributors for an interesting and insightful discussion: Matt Rhodes (AOC), Olly Newton (Edge Foundation), Vikki Liogier (Education and Training Foundation), Polly Morgan iDEA Foundation, Paul McKean (Jisc), Michael Lemin (NCFE), Isabel Newman (NESTA), Lisa Morrison-Coulthard (NFER), Professor Ellen Boeren (University of Glasgow), Ginny Page (Gatsby), Reina Yaidoo (Bassajamba), Debbie Carlton (Dynamic Knowledge), Andy Erwich (AELP), Victoria Geroe (CBI), Bethan Collins (CIPD Wales), Michael Lewis (West Midlands Combined Authority), Hannah Kirkbride (Career Matters), Helen Cuthbert (AELP).

The VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition

At Ufi we are committed to connecting solutions to problems and bringing people together to share and find new connections, in particular in these constrained times when we all have to find ways to work smarter, foster collaboration and accelerate the pace of change.

As an economy we are taking big steps forward into a sustainable, digital future where skills are key to unlocking UK productivity and competitiveness. At Ufi we want those opportunities to be for everyone, whatever their starting point in their journey into learning and work. Where people aren’t just playing catch-up but have the chance to thrive in new industries and sectors.

Together with Learning and Work Institute our VocTech Challenge will delve deeper into what has already been ‘learnt’ and seek new insights into how we can create a UK skills system, underpinned by tech, that helps to narrow inequalities and ensure every adult can participate in learning throughout their working lives so that as our economy continues to evolve and transition, no one is left behind.

We’re excited to see what issues are surfaced. These will shape a grant call and other commissioned activities that Ufi will announce in June.

Take a look and get involved.