Skip to main content
Home » Education » Beyond Buzzwords: A User Guide for the Future of Work

A primer on lifelong learning and 21st-century skills.

A lot has been written about the jobs and skills of tomorrow, and the predictions of an uncertain post-pandemic reality. Here is a simple user guide of terms that can help you navigate through the cluster of information and ideas related to the future of work, your place in it, and why you should care.

Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning is considered to be one of the unifying concepts underlying adult education. It acknowledges that formal learning does not end once you complete a college/university credential. Gone are the days of higher education attainment leading to a single career outcome. The need for continuous education will be a compelling requirement for lifelong workforce engagement and personal career satisfaction.

In her book, Long Life Learning, Michelle Weise argues that a multitude of factors will result in unprecedented turnover in jobs and careers in the coming years. The need to re-enter the workforce following short cycles of learning will be a constant throughout a person’s working life. Essentially, learning and having a career is no longer a linear journey; it’s more like an intricate spider’s web full of twists, turns, and opportunities.

Skills Gap

A skills gap refers to a disconnect between the qualifications employers are seeking, and the skill sets that exist in the population. Disruptions such as the pandemic have catalyzed the dynamic nature of global labour markets, which were already in a precarious state prior to 2020. The skills gap has widened.

But what is driving a wedge in this gap? Digital and technological skills. Specifically, advances in technology, artificial intelligence, and automation are changing the nature of work. These impacts are being realized in diverse sectors from advanced manufacturing to health care.

Industry 4.0

Some have stated that this increasing emphasis on digital and technology-focused skill requirements is an extension of the Third Industrial Revolution, which was ushered in by the emergence of the personal computer. Others have suggested that this evolution has given rise to a new era of automation and artificial intelligence – the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.

The impacts of Industry 4.0 have created one of the greatest turnovers in the labour market since the dawn of the First Industrial Revolution in the 1760s. What is the response to this emerging workforce crisis? Fill in the gap. In other words, provide education and training that attempts to narrow the gap based on a workforce development strategy. This is where upskilling and reskilling come in.

Upskilling and Reskilling

Although these terms share a common goal – providing skills that better align with 21st-century job qualifications – they do have distinct definitions.

Upskilling refers to enhancing existing knowledge and skills, whereas reskilling refers to shifting existing knowledge while acquiring in-demand skills in a new domain (i.e., viable and desirable job transition). Within industry, upskilling of workers is seen as a means of enhancing productivity, while reskilling is seen as an opportunity to innovate.

This leaves one big question: if upskilling and reskilling is the means by which the skills gap created by Industry 4.0 is going to be narrowed, then what is the strategy in a workforce development strategy? It begins by having higher education institutions work with provincial, federal, and industry partners in order to achieve a robust workforce development ecosystem (one where identified skill and training opportunities are funded to support learners and incentivize employers).

Continuing education units have been working in this space for decades. They have leveraged their expertise and experience in lifelong learning to acquire support and recognition from government and industry. This has resulted in the development of innovative education and training opportunities that meet the upskilling and reskilling needs of lifelong learners. Continuing education units are also striving to provide funding opportunities that will enable greater participation in lifelong learning, and build stronger resiliency among workers affected by future labour market disruptions.

Why should you care? The precarious future state of work is perhaps a healthy mix of hype, speculation, and fact. What seems almost indisputable is the value of higher education, particularly when interwoven with a broader application of lifelong learning.

Next article