Upskilling and retraining. How do we motivate workers in a constantly changing labour market?


05 08 2021


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A new report from Learning and Work Institute and Nesta highlights what we’ve learned about supporting adults who are most vulnerable to workforce change, to upskill and retrain online.

To state that the labour market is in a state of flux would be an understatement. On top of an already challenging employment landscape, over the past 18 months, the global COVID-19 pandemic has caused what the OECD describes as “a tsunami on top of broader economic, social and demographic shifts already reshaping local labour markets.

Although the labour market is starting to show signs of recovery and overall labour demand is rising, It’s not all good news. As highlighted by our Chief Exec Stephen Evans in June 2021, “To fix the mismatch between some employers finding it difficult to recruit despite increased unemployment, we need high quality job search support and better retraining help for those affected by coronavirus-related changes in our economy.” Understanding how best to support workers who are most at risk from changes to the labour market, to upskill and retrain is one of the key challenges of our time.

A key aim of the CareerTech Challenge was to build the evidence base on ‘what works’ to support adults to engage in online learning and build skills for future labour markets. Innovators were required, with support, to design and deliver an evaluation of their intervention. We were commissioned by Nesta to act as the evaluation partner for the programme, supporting 11 innovators to design and deliver a process and outcome evaluation of their intervention. Evidence presented in each innovator report is drawn together to identify the key themes. This report also follows our recently published work on the complexities of assessing labour market data based on the experience of the remaining 20 CareerTech Challenge innovators.

What works for adult online learning: An evaluation of the CareerTech Challenge



When Nesta launched the CareerTech Challenge in October  2019 in partnership with the Department for Education and Nesta Challenges, a global pandemic and its effect on the labour market weren’t something any of us had considered. Our main aim with the programme was to support the development of innovative tech solutions to help people to develop career adaptability skills that would enable them to find rewarding future careers. The programme was designed to support adults who were most at risk of rapid labour market change such as those in precarious work and with low levels of education.

The CareerTech Challenge was inspired by a rapid evidence assessment led by Nesta and CFE Research that explored what motivates adults to learn.  This research reinforced the importance of the link between individuals’ motivation to learn and their psychological readiness when considering positive career outcomes and demonstrated that motivations to learn can be intrinsic and extrinsic.

Online learning courses typically have a completion rate of around 12% so through the programme, it was not simply a case of “if you build it they will come” but needed to be led by a desire to create innovative online learning platforms that would engage and sustain learners.  From a wider cohort of 31 innovators, the CareerTech Challenge awarded funding to 11 innovators to design and deliver online learning solutions for people who are most vulnerable to workforce changes. Innovators comprised a mix of tech start- ups and established adult learning providers.

Key findings

The CareerTech Challenge innovators designed a range of different online learning interventions that met the needs of the adults the project aimed to support. These included: flexible, self-directed training modules focused on building career adaptability skills, AI-driven personalised learning via chatbots, learning literacy apps, learning embedded in video game platforms, and digital peer mentoring.

Across the range of platforms, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the innovators were able to engage with over 10,000 learners in the 12 months that the evaluation took place. Those innovators who implemented a range of recruitment approaches and monitored these closely were more successful in recruiting target groups and achieving a good number of learners.

Qualitative evidence from project-level evaluations identify a positive effect on learner motivation. For example, participating in a programme relevant to their employment goals supported extrinsic motivations such as aiming to progress in employment, gain a job or change career. Specific features of interventions were found to directly impact these motivations, such as accreditation by recognised industry partners and the relevance of the course to the changing employment landscape. Intrinsic motivations were also increased by learners’ enjoyment of learning, and the opportunity to do something ‘normal’ and constructive during the challenges of the pandemic; many learners reported an increased desire to learn in the future after participating in interventions.

One learner on the Coventry University platform said: “Doing something like this course without working at the moment, it gives you an element of control […] we need to find something that feels normal with all of our lives as they are at the moment. One of those moments where I can pick my laptop up, know that I’m working with like-minded people. There is this little piece of my life I can do something about right now”

This report presents timely learning of the key considerations for the design and delivery of high impact online learning for those most affected by changing labour markets.

Below we set out six recommendations for innovators to consider for future online adult learning interventions.

  1. Targeted marketing and consideration of learner needs is vital to support recruitment. Innovators who established strategies to engage potential learners from ‘harder to reach’ groups were more successful in securing their participation.
  2. Develop a clear onboarding strategy to support engagement. Online learning innovators should consider developing onboarding processes and activities to support learner engagement, with a particular focus on maintaining engagement prior to project start.
  3. Consider bite-sized learning and personalisation in online learning. Online learning innovators should consider the inclusion of bite-sized learning and personalisation in interventions in order to support motivation to learn and skills development.
  4. Integrate elements of social contact in online learning but give consideration to learner preference. Online learning innovators should consider including elements of social contact in interventions to act as a mechanism for engagement and skills development.
  5. Clarity of course design and material should be a key focus in the intervention development phase. Whilst experimenting with innovative features, online learning innovators should ensure that course design and content is clear, accurate and consistent in language, in order to support ease of access and understanding.
  6. Interventions should offer a clear sightline to future employment opportunities. Online learning innovators should ensure that marketing materials and course information are explicit about the employment-related skills, experience and benefits learners will gain through participation in the intervention.

In the full report these recommendations are expanded further and in addition, we have suggested a range of key considerations for future commissioners and funders.

As restrictions continue to ease and the country shifts back to being open for business, it’s important that lessons from programmes like this are taken on board by innovators and policy makers alike. This should ensure that workers are able to pivot and adapt to enable them to have a stable and fulfilling future career. What will you do to make sure that happens?

Alongside the main report, we have also published the findings from 3 of the innovators in more detail which you can find below. You can also read each of the innovators’ reflections on their work by exploring the links on the main CareerTech Challenge page.

Case studies from the CareerTech Challenge