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Getting meta: a recovery that supports sustainable, adaptable careers

Richard Eyre Richard Eyre Guest blogger

8 October 2020

Richard Eyre is a policy and strategy professional who has advised on education and skills policy on three continents. He currently works as Chief Programmes Officer for education charity, The Brilliant Club. Twitter: @RREyre

With a second coronavirus lockdown looming and predictions that the current recession will last at least until the spring, the need to get workers back into work is high on the political agenda. The Government has announced over £3 billion in job support schemes to “help those who unfortunately lose their jobs back into the labour market quickly.” But it is likely that many of the jobs lost during lockdown will not return in the same form, the same industries or the same places as before. The Learning and Work Institute has estimated that perhaps more than one million furloughed workers will be unable to return to their jobs, with certain sectors (retail, travel, hospitality) hit especially hard.

All this sits against a background of long-term changes in the world of work. Whether or not the robots are set to become our masters is still up for debate but, while estimates differ, it seems unarguable that automation and machine learning will reduce – perhaps eliminate – the demand for certain skills and occupations. In the fourth industrial revolution adaptability will be key, both for individuals and economies.

Amidst a global crisis, how can we prepare people for careers, the shape of which seem so uncertain? How can we ensure that the once-in-a-generation investment in the recovery is not wasted, but instead helps to create an adaptable labour market, ready for what awaits us on the other side?

In their article last month, David Gallagher and Matt Hamnett set out a vision for helping young people to train, find, stay and progress in work in spite of the current economic and labour market context. In particular, they posed a challenge about the ‘meta skills’ which underpin employability and could support young people to adapt and switch sectors as the economy recovers and changes. This blog explores the emerging debate about meta skills – what they are, how they can be developed and how impact can be measured – before drawing out some implications for policymakers.

What are meta skills?

Meta skills can most helpfully be defined as skills that magnify and activate other skills. There are broadly three (overlapping) ways to think about this.

Think of them as skills that are essentially about the development of other skills and knowledge. In their 2018 paper Skills 4.0, Skills Development Scotland proposes a model for meta skills, which they define as “timeless, higher order skills that create adaptive learners and promote success in whatever context the future brings.” They categorise them into three groups, encompassing 12 individual skills:

  • Self-management (focusing, integrity, adapting, initiative)
  • Social intelligence (communicating, feeling, collaborating, leading)
  • Innovation (curiosity, creativity, sense making, critical thinking).

This model seeks to combine the skills necessary for the acquisition of existing knowledge and techniques with the skills for creating new products and solutions.

Meta skills can be those that are most likely to support an individual’s adaptability and resilience to changes in the labour market (especially through automation)McKinsey have categorised human performance into 18 competencies and assessed which are hardest to automate (for example, generating novel patterns, problem solving, creativity, coordination with other humans, and social and emotional sensing, reasoning and outputs) and which are easiest to automate (for example, recognising known patterns, information retrieval and gross motor skills). This assessment underpins McKinsey’s prediction that medium-skilled clerical jobs are at greatest risk of becoming obsolete. Nesta, meanwhile, predicts that 10% of workers are in occupations for which demand is set to grow while 20% will see demand for their role shrink (with 70% in occupations where it is too early to say). They emphasise interpersonal skills, originality, active learning, judgement and decision making as those skills most resilient to likely future trends, as well as arguing for the importance of broad-based knowledge alongside specific technical skills. Similarly, Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotis, in his new book Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, highlights the importance of skills which involve “doing that which only humans can: thinking critically, reasoning ethically, interacting interpersonally, and serving others with empathy.”

Meta skills can embody broader conceptions of the skills needed to access a good life – what Amartya Sen called “core capabilities.” In fact, there may be a case for thinking in terms of core skills – literacy, numeracy and digital skills – that underpin the development of a wider set of meta skills. A prominent example here from the adult skills context is the Citizens’ Curriculum, which set out to develop learners’ “financial, digital, civic and health capability” alongside core curricula which already existed for literacy, numeracy and ESOL. Although these skills are arguably less ‘meta’ than more abstract conceptions of capability (the OECD’s dimensions of global competence, for example) there is an important practical case for this sort of approach: over a quarter of young adults lack basic literacy or numeracy skills, representing a significant barrier to both employment and further learning. In this sense, futurist Alvin Topfler’s assertion that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” seems like a false dichotomy – learning and relearning is a lot easier if you can read.

However narrowly or broadly we choose to define meta skills, they give us a way of articulating the aims of training and job support in terms of the tools needed for lifelong learning, not just the functional skills needed for a specific job. This offers the potential for coherence at a time when providers and employers are having to innovate rapidly.

How can we develop meta skills?

Examples from primary and secondary education demonstrate that meta skills can be intentionally developed in a way that supports wider learning. The debate in this field has centred on whether meta skills can be developed in isolation or whether they are best developed within a subject domain, with the latter proposition gaining more traction in recent years.

This is important as we think about the skills provision needed to develop meta skills in the context of economic recovery. Interventions that focus exclusively on the development of specific functional skills are likely to miss opportunities to develop meta skills. Similarly, stamping “now with added meta skills” on existing provision is unlikely to deliver much real impact. Rather, those designing courses and placements should carefully plan how specific meta skills will be developed throughout.

Intentional design for meta skills could involve building elements of metacognition and self-regulation into apprenticeships or traineeships, drawing on evidence from similar approaches in the schools sector. For example, learners could be supported to plan and monitor their own learning and talk reflectively with mentors, tutors or peers to make explicit the strategies they are using to master a new functional skill. Alternatively, design for meta skills could involve assessing learner needs and providing one-to-one support with literacy and/or numeracy alongside a work placement – something which is already a feature of effective traineeships. Design for meta skills could also involve preparatory activities to build learner confidence and resilience in relation to work and careers, such as mock interview and teambuilding exercises – a feature of successful pre-apprenticeship schemes.

One potentially powerful way to build meta skills into adult skills provision is to codesign the curriculum with learners. This was a key feature of schemes that piloted the Citizens’ Curriculum approach, and was associated with significantly improved employability, attitudes towards learning, social and civic engagement, and self-efficacy. This is the hard edge to what are sometimes called ‘soft skills’, because we know that learners’ confidence and personal circumstances can be significant barriers to participating in retraining schemes. The 94% of Citizens’ Curriculum learners who reported feeling more motivated to learn, 59% who reported an improved social life and 67% who reported greater self-confidence are likely to find these factors at least as important when it comes to adapting to a changing world as they would any single technical skill. Rochdale Borough Council estimated that their pilot had generated £3.68 financial return and £19.65 public value for every pound spent.

Like any other skill, meta skills are likely to deteriorate over time if they are not used and practised. As such, beyond any immediate response to the pandemic and economic recovery, it will be important to consider how meta skills developed as learners train or retrain for new jobs can be embedded through continuous development in the workplace. This has implications, for example, for the use of the Adult Education Budget for continuous professional development.

Finally, although meta skills are likely to support individuals to adapt over the course of their careers, this does not remove the need for targeted assistance when people want or need to change careers – career changing itself being an important developmental process through which workers build and practise meta skills. For this reason, we have already seen calls for an expansion of advice and support through Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service as well as financial support for training and living costs for career changers.

How can we measure impact?

Far from being too vague or intangible to measure per se, a range of approaches exist to measure the development of meta skills. The degree of robustness with which these skills can be measured depends both on the skill in question and the measurement instruments being used. If we consider meta skills to encompass literacy and numeracy, these are straightforward to measure through an assessment; more abstract skills such as critical thinking can be assessed using existing psychometric tests. For other meta skills, the best means of measurement is likely to be a self-report questionnaire, completed at the start and end of the intervention. Some meta skills (for example, metacognition and self-regulation) are established psychological constructs for which validated self-report questionnaires exist; they could also be measured through observations. Other skills, like creativity, are harder to define and therefore harder to measure – although measurement instruments do exist.

Measuring development of meta skills robustly lets learners and providers see the progress they have made together, which can embed self-confidence and inform future learning. It can also tell us, from a policy perspective, which interventions are effective in developing meta skills. In some cases – such as literacy and numeracy assessments – measurements of meta skills can also be used as evidence when it comes to accrediting individuals’ learning. In other cases, such as where self-report questionnaires are used, data may not be suitable for accreditation purposes at the level of the individual learner. Still, the aggregation of data may allow us to conclude that learners completing a given award will have developed certain meta skills in the process. The Citizen’s Curriculum, for example, mapped each of its ‘capabilities’ against the existing curricula or frameworks of awarding bodies.

The better evidence we have about interventions that develop meta skills, the better placed we are to scale up the most effective approaches. In the schools sector, research commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has demonstrated that metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact. Based on that research, the EEF is also able to advise schools on the contexts in which these approaches work best and their potential limitations. This is particularly important in relation to meta skills as we are interested in the extent to which the skill is transferable to multiple contexts. The Social Mobility Commission has called for the establishment of a What Works Centre for Further Education and Skills, which could play a similar role to the EEF and support the measurement of meta skills across the sector.

Implications for policymakers

We don’t know what the economy will look like after the pandemic, or twenty or thirty years on from then, but we do know that labour market adaptability will be crucial. Meta skills give us a way of understanding how individuals will be equipped to adapt. Successful economies will invest in building meta skills as part of their coronavirus recovery efforts and responsible governments will ensure citizens have fair access to meta skills – after all, these skills are the keys to individuals’ future wellbeing, economic mobility and even survival.

If meta skills are to be more than just a bolt-on, but rather a fully-integrated feature of the system that is both developed and utilised by employers, there are implications for policy design, commissioning and delivery over a wide range of policy areas. In the UK context, policymakers should:

  • Support the development and adoption of a common framework setting out the meta skills that learners should expect to develop for sustainable careers, and exemplify what this looks like across each type of further education and skills provision. The qualification and curriculum bundles being developed by NCFE could provide a model for this approach.
  • Prioritise investment of coronavirus recovery spending on interventions that build long-term skills, including meta skills, not just on those that create short-term employment – and back this up with ongoing support for job-switchers and career changers.
  • Invest in understanding what works in developing meta skills – for example, by making this a focus of a new What Works Centre for FE and Adult Learning.

When the only constant is change, the only safe investment is in our ability to adapt.