Have you ever tried to get a Macadamia out of its shell? They are quite literally “a tough nut to crack”, having the hardest casing of all nuts, requiring 300 lbs per square inch to break them. In addition to the actual kernel, the shells have a hidden surprise, once you finally get into them their inside is smooth and shiny and split into two distinct parts, one portion dark and the other light. I thought of Macadamia nuts this week, when the Cardinals were locked in the Sistine Chapel during the papal conclave and the world waited for black or white smoke.
|Black smoke rising from the Vatican's Sistine Chapel papal chimney|
As the process for the election of a new Pope demonstrates, much of what we do is determined by customs and regulation. Today I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion hosted by the Training Journal in partnership with learndirect. It was to consider the report Lord Leitch produced for the UK Government in 2006, outlining what (in his opinion) needed to be done to make the skills of the UK workforce among the best in the world by 2020. This year marks the midpoint toward that goal and it was sobering to contemplate the progress to date. In case you have forgotten (or never knew) his proposals, in essence they were for:
· 95% of adults to achieve functional literacy and numeracy
· More than 90% of adults to be qualified to at least level 2 (i.e. competence that involves the application of knowledge in a significant range of varied work activities, performed in a variety of contexts. Collaboration with others, perhaps through membership of a work group or team, is often a requirement. At British comprehensive schools, Level 2 is equivalent to one GCSE at A*-C )
· A raising of the average rank of intermediate skills in the adult population from level 2 to level 3
· More than 40% of adults to be qualified to level 4 and above (level 4 translates as competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of complex, technical or professional work activities performed in a variety of contexts and with a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy. Responsibility for the work of others and the allocation of resources is often present.)
The world has changed a lot since 2006, not least because of the global banking and financial crisis. Lord Leitch’s aspirations and recommendations in the Review remain admirable, for example for employers to voluntarily commit to train all eligible employees up to level 2 in the workplace. However, the financial constraints on many UK businesses have meant that they have had other issues to focus on, such as remaining viable in challenging times. Many organisations have been forced into being quite short-term in outlook over the past few years.
However, this time, when many are unable to commit time and resources to skills training, is perhaps an opportune moment for us to consider the actual skills we need.
The “skills” we are encouraged to develop within the work environment are dependent on rigidly defined stages of attainment, utilised in our education system and prescribed for vocational training purposes. I do wonder whether some of the hoops we are making people leap through are actually giving them what they need. When I was at school we were taught to use a slide rule in maths – I’m not sure I could easily solve a problem with one now, but I doubt if I will ever need to. The advent of sophisticated calculators has made them redundant. I studied for two years for my A Levels and then had a few hours in which to regurgitate some of the knowledge stored inside me, in response to questions in the exam. Was my actual capability in applying the knowledge I had being assessed or my ability to remember things? Google and other search engines mean that I can get information swiftly about almost any topic – my memory is less important than my capacity to find appropriate facts and to apply what I discover to solve actual problems and inform decisions. In my current work environment I need to be able to plan strategically, budget against the plan, inspire others to work with me to achieve defined objectives and ensure that all that has to be done is attained in a timely and efficient manner. Is my law degree an obvious indicator of my possessing these skills, except in the most simplistic form of demonstrating that I can devise answers to exam questions and write them down within the time prescribed?
The world moves on and we need to progress with it. How can we best equip and assess individuals for the actual skills they will need in working life? I do not dispute the value of literacy and numeracy, but the conventional command and control approach of, for example, reciting the dates of kings and queens by rote seems unnecessary and outdated. We need to work with schools and educational establishments to explain the skills that are and will be valuable in the workplace. Futurists say that the future is collaboration and project focused – where and how can we best foster and see these traits demonstrated?
There isn’t one easy solution – life isn’t black and white and the way of training and assessing the skills required for the future remains, like the Macadamia, a hard nut to crack...
|Mr John Waldron cracking Macadamia nuts in Australia 1957|
(Photo: People Magazine, State Library of Queensland & John Oxley Library; #7719-0001-0003)