Skill obsolescence is the ‘degree to which professionals lack the up-to-date knowledge or skills necessary to maintain effective performance in their current or future work roles’ (Kaufman, 1974).
To mitigate skill gaps in jobs, the European Commission has emphasised how important skill development is for the future knowledge economy. Lifelong learning policies and strategies might however be too often approached from the perspective of the education system and give only a limited account of the labour market and the role of organisations.
Skills obsolescence and the workplace
A new Cedefop report published in October 2015 indicates that skills obsolescence is a complex and multifaceted issue.
Skills obsolescence is not only relevant for organisations when searching externally for new staff to fill the organisations’ skills gaps, there are also significant gaps in the skills pallet of the existing workers. This because of:
- technical obsolescence which concerns skill depreciation – a reduced ability to perform a set of tasks due to wear, sickness or ageing;
- economic obsolescence, which is particularly relevant in the context of changing skill needs in economies because it results from changes in the work environment.
The workplace can be a very dynamic environment impacted by evolving technologies, changing consumer tastes or other economic/social shocks. At the workplace therefore the threat of skills obsolescence is a very prominent one…
Or is it?
The workplace as shield against skills obsolescence
It appears that the workplace and organisations where people work are the best shields against skills obsolescence. At the workplace positive learning contexts can be created where learning is ingrained into work. The learning and working context should be driven by the need to solve new and complex problems and by mastering the challenges that workers are confronted with in their jobs.
In other words, when people work, there are early indications that skills gaps occur. With the right set of the organisations learning environment, these skills gaps are mitigated at an early stage. As long as people work, and the workplace has elements of a learning environment, problematic skills gaps can be avoided.
Another aspect of skills gaps is how the work is organised. In the short term, skills gaps can be avoided when jobs are broken down into simple tasks requiring only a limited set of skills. In the long term, employers might struggle to adapt to changing circumstances and face more severe skills deficits. Together with providing a positive learning environment, the working environment should be challenging to keep up with changing circumstances and provide an incentive to continue to develop.
The Cedefop study concludes that organisations have a critical role to play in preventing skill gaps. This can be achieved by:
- fostering a learning climate in the workplace, with emphasis on the provision of support for learning opportunities to employees by management and among colleagues
- supporting work complexity, including the ability of workers to use a variety of skills in their daily work routines and to have a certain degree of control when engaging in abstract tasks
- enabling a better balance between work and life responsibilities, given that skill development is an investment that requires time, so work-life conflicts may lead to larger skill gaps.
The EPALE blog ‘What’s new in workplace learning? Introducing Employee-driven innovation’ by Professor Karen Evans (Chair in Education, UCL Institute of Education) points in the same direction from the perspective of workplace learning and fostering innovation: learning can be a factor in itself in changing the workplace!
Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.