By Dr Fiona Aldridge
With England amid a second lockdown and millions working from home or furloughed, there is very much a sense that we have been here before. There are tough times ahead and this time the weather is colder, the days are shorter, and many are still reeling from the financial and psychological challenges of the first lockdown. But we’re better prepared too and our experience of lockdown earlier in the year surely has lots to teach us about how we make the best of the next few weeks and months.
Recent research from employment and skills think tank the Learning and Work Institute shows that, during the first lockdown, two in five adults (42 per cent) – an estimated 22 million people across the UK – embraced this opportunity to engage in some form of learning or training, with most of this taking place completely (60 per cent) or partially (30 per cent) online.
While many lockdown learners said they were learning for work-related reasons, others were learning for their own personal development, or to pursue an interest or hobby. Around one in 10 said the reduced time and work pressures of lockdown meant that they were now able to commit to learning, when this had previously not been possible. But lockdown learning had its challenges too. One in five found that previously planned learning had to be postponed or cancelled. Others struggled to balance their learning with work pressures, childcare or home schooling, or access to technology.
This raised interest in learning during lockdown is great news. Our annual Adult participation in learning survey repeatedly shows that the best way to create lifelong learners is to focus on getting people started in the first place – often by learning something that particularly interests them or helps them to achieve their work or wider life goals. We were encouraged to see nearly two-thirds of those who tried online learning during lockdown say that they were very likely to continue with online learning in the future; and one in five lockdown learners said their experience had made them more likely to take up work-related training.
The challenge, however, is in ensuring that opportunities are available to – and taken up by – those who most need to upskill or retrain. Our research highlighted stark inequalities in who engaged with learning during lockdown, with younger adults, full-time workers, those in higher socioeconomic grades and with a greater level of education all more likely to be learning. Among full-time employees, those who continued to work during lockdown were more likely to learn than those who were furloughed.
While these patterns of participation are not entirely unexpected, they are of serious concern given the unequal impact of the pandemic on the labour market, where workers with fewer qualifications and those in lower-skilled or lower-paid roles are more likely to lose their jobs. Despite facing a greater need to upskill and retrain to find work in the post-Covid economy, these workers are least likely to be accessing learning opportunities to support this.
So what are the takeaway messages for L&D professionals? First, there is substantial appetite among your staff to learn new things and develop new skills, especially when they have the time and see the need to do so. Second, make the most of this time to support furloughed workers to develop new skills – skills they can put to use in your business when they return. Third, target your support and opportunities towards those who are least likely to take these up for themselves, but stand to benefit most if they do.
We know that learning and training can bring significant benefits to businesses – improving productivity and quality, raising morale and increasing staff retention. We should not miss this opportunity to build on people’s experience of learning in lockdown, and to reskill and upskill the workforce.
By Dr Fiona Aldridge, Director for policy and research at Learning and Work Institute