Lifelong learning: Is your education limiting your career options?

Hisham Elaraby. Image courtesy of Udacity
By Hisham Elaraby
Regional Director at Udacity Middle East and North Africa
 
There is an enormous gap between the size of the opportunity and the amount of people who are qualified to seize it. Yet, this increase in demand is coming from a rather good place — expansion, prosperity and growth. As the countries of the world modernise, global economies are expected to rise, leading to a rise in consumption.
 
There is no question that learners of all ages and stages need - and deserve - ready access to programmes, through which they can acquire the valuable and in-demand skills necessary for success in our modern economy. According to McKinsey, there will be an estimated global shortfall of up to 40 million educated, high-skilled workers and 45 million medium-skilled workers in 2020. It further expects by 2030, eight per cent of the global labour demand will come from new jobs that don’t even exist yet.
 
Automation is changing the world for the better in many ways, but it also comes with negative consequences. We can’t ignore that it will lead to difficult transitions, as well as a significant loss and changes to jobs. According to another finding by McKinsey, by 2030, 15 per cent of the world’s jobs - or 400 million workers - could be displaced by automation. That includes people who work in factories, as well as many professionals who work in offices. Even driverless cars, which could save 10 million lives per decade, will likely mean millions of people will lose their jobs.
 
The Middle East and North Africa region (Mena) poses a unique challenge. The digital economy is still small, at four per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), compared to the US (eight per cent) and the EU (six per cent). Only 1.7 per cent of the Middle East workforce is comprised of digital talent— half that of the US and Europe. However, leaders in the Arab world are embracing the future and taking aggressive steps to leapfrog past previous limitations.
 
The region has been investing heavily in education — an average of 18 per cent of total government spending versus a global average of 14 per cent. This is coming from a place of necessity, as the region is experiencing a boom in the youth population.
 
A large number of young people would historically be considered an asset to a productive economy. However, the region also has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate. At 30 per cent, it is double the world average. Many of those jobs do not contribute to the local economy, but instead consume government resources. 
 
In some countries in the region, the government employs 30 per cent of the workforce — three times what you would see in a developed country.  And the education system is challenged to prepare many of these people for private sector jobs.
 
The importance lifelong learning
 
The data is clear: the global hunger for skilled tech talent is growing more and more voraciously. The job market will increasingly place a premium on ongoing worker knowledge and training. Accordingly, the demand for us all to be lifelong learners will only intensify. 
 
Last year, the Economist featured identified lifelong learning as one of the most significant phenomena of our age. But in order to understand why this concept could truly revolutinise our lives, we need to understand why the current learning model is being disrupted. 
 
The idea of universal education  - where everyone should be able to read and write  - was born toward the end of 18th century in Prussia. What was considered a very forward-thinking model began to be exported all over the world in the mid 19th century. 
 
However, it has largely remained the same for the past 150 years, until 2011, when open online courses became available and universities quickly followed suit and offered some of their curricula online.
 
How can we ensure that our workforce has the skills to be viable in the future? We can no longer expect our existing education systems, with their focus on two- and four-year degrees and often change-averse nature, to adequately prepare us. We must respond to employers’ demands for specific skills by developing new approaches focused on credentials, competencies, assessment, and certificates—all supported by better advising, mentoring, counseling and apprenticing.
So many skills are becoming obsolete and new skills are higher in demand. The internet has made the cost of information transfer nearly zero. People are more connected than ever and there is so much data and computing or processing power available.
 
It’s important to also understand that the move away from degree requirements is happening simultaneous to a collective recognition of the importance of lifelong learning. Long-term career success in our modern economy necessitates an ongoing commitment to updating one’s skills, and given the rapid advance of technology, this process must - and will take place - outside of the traditional college context. So while a college degree can certainly be an important component of one’s long-term career chronology, it will—almost by definition—sit at the beginning of that timeline. Further developments will come via workplace training initiatives and self-motivated independent learning.
 
Unlocking infinite possibilities
 
If you educate someone and prepare them for meaningful careers, they will not only build a better life for themselves and their families, but also for the rest of society. To achieve that goal, we have to make tech less intimidating, and skilled education more available. We need to show people how rewarding it can be to come up with solutions for some of the world’s biggest problems.
 
We need to help them dream of careers in tech and then we need to make it possible for them to go for it. It’s all a part of having the audacity to change. 
 
The potential for a better future is bold and bright – and is centered on the convergence of sustained economic progress, human creativity and tech-savvy youth. As it stands on the cusp of vast economic and social growth, the Mena region is only scratching the surface.
 
 
 

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