How are industry and higher education performing when it comes to bridging the 21st century skills gap?

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We know that the development of 21st century skills is crucial for workplace readiness and economic growth but how does this translate into real options for ambitious students and school leavers? With factors such as the cost of tuition fees, a highly-competitive job market and our fast-moving economy to consider, they face increasingly difficult decisions at this key crossroads in their lives. Often this means deciding whether to pursue an industry apprenticeship or to complete a university degree.


Industry apprenticeships were traditionally thought of as providing narrow, task-driven training, but apprenticeships have begun to evolve in order to attract top talent and respond to the need for skills and experience, not just credentials. The appeal of ‘earn while you learn’ and the prospect of an eventual role within the company is a big tick in the box for budding apprentices but in today’s employment market (where short-term roles dominate) candidates also need to know that they are developing transferable 21st century skills that they can eventually take elsewhere.

Many companies such as Siemens (who offer apprenticeship programmes for their fossil and wind-power businesses) run schemes in conjunction with external colleges. Siemens offers a combination of study alongside specialist high-level training at their state-of the art training centre.

Companies like Barclays offer a carefully tailored programme of apprenticeships which enable applicants to choose the one best suited to their existing qualifications, work experience and aspirations. For Barclays apprentices, not only is their progress monitored by a manager, they also have regular interactions with mentors inside and outside the company as well as a ‘Talent Manger’ who provides feedback on their performance.

Technology like online learning platforms also form a key element of many modern apprenticeships. Apprentices at Santander are offered permanent access to the company’s online learning portal where they can develop their personal and soft skills. Leading training provider, The Skills Network, supports employer apprenticeship schemes by offering flexible training solutions that maximise efficiencies, drive progression and ensure that off-the-job training time is worthwhile and recorded. Their tools include Study Coaches, face to face Assessor visits, online learning content, soundbites and online lectures.

Then there are new schemes like the government’s ‘degree apprenticeship’ initiative which offers students a blended mix i.e. the chance to achieve a full bachelor’s or master’s degree as part of their apprenticeship by combing work with part-time study (and avoid tuition fees) These programmes are being developed by employers such as the BBC, Barclays and Jaguar Landrover who work in collaboration with universities and professional bodies.

HE Institutions

How can educators compete with this reinvented on-the-job training? Institutions are realising that creating environments that are engaging, challenging and encourage autonomy are integral pieces in the puzzle that is creating 21st century skills such as critical thinking and initiative. The old teaching model of ‘sage on the stage’ is outdated. Speaking at the CABS and McGraw-Hill Education forum, Bo van der Rhee from Nyenrode Business University confirmed that for her “The teaching philosophy at our university, which I developed 5 years ago is: “Less teaching, more learning & development”.

Angela Short from Dundalk Institute of Technology says “For teachers simply covering the content is no longer enough , rather it is the use of appropriate content to embed the 21st Century skills that is now our role”. The key, Angela argues, lies in an institution’s approach to assessment which must be designed to move students from regurgitation of facts to the application and critical evaluation of knowledge in real life scenarios.

As part of Angela’s teaching she uses an online simulation game that students engage with to both teach content and develop and test skills. This immersive game places students in the role of an Operations Manager in a clothing firm and as the simulation progresses, they must order stock, manage the budget, hire and fire staff and eventually run their own factory. She reports exceptionally high levels of engagement among her students who respond enthusiastically to the chance to use their initiative, problem-solve and make decisions in this virtual environment.

When it comes to assessment of the simulation game, 50% of the students’ final score is based on questions that require them to describe in detail the various problem solving strategies they employed when playing the game to ensure that they have truly engaged in the process and can explain their decision-making.

Like Angela, Caroline Ennis, of Westminster Business School believes that embracing technology in the classroom is essential. She says “The complexity of modern society requires a broader and more open mindset, and this requires 21st century teachers to embrace the opportunity that the technology brings.”

Thought leaders who participated in the CABS and McGraw-Hill Education forum agreed that the shift to a ‘guide on the side’ teaching approach is crucial for HE Institutions, who have a crucial role to play in the development of these higher-order 21st century workplace skills. The best educators emulate these soft skills in their own teaching methods and by creating a space where group work and autonomy prevails, and discussion is key. At a managerial level, many HEI managers have never worked in industry so have never had their own skills tested in this environment. There may be an argument to suggest that expert intermediaries are needed to interpret industry requirements and bring the findings back to HEIs.

Collaboration between HE and Industry

Collaboration between universities and business is definitely on the rise with initiatives like innovation hubs such as the ‘Ideas Factory’ incubation centre at Norwich University of the Arts which supports local digital creative SMEs to start up and grow by offering them space, business support services and access to the university’s infrastructure.

Many institutions now partner with industry to offer work placements as part of degree courses. At Dundalk Institute of Technology, 50% of undergraduate courses now have work placements embedded in their programmes and many students get jobs at their placement companies as a result. Another example of partnership is Cphbusiness in Copenhagen who collaborated with Siemens Mobility systems (now Alstrom) in 2017 as part of a project where students had the chance to work on an autonomous light rail systems project. Siemens even incorporated some of the students’ input into their designs. As one student put it “eventually you forget an exam score, but you never forget that your ideas and suggestions will be visible in cities for decades.” These opportunities provide students with invaluable experience of the realities of work and an understand of the skills they will need to thrive.

Perhaps the growing trend of ‘micro-credentials’ offers another solution to delivering long-term access to education in a format and at a pace that responds to the latest trends in industry. Already offered by some US colleges, this model allows programmes to be broken down into short modules that professional working people can take to upskill, enhance their performance in their current role and gain credits towards a qualification. So-called ‘bitesize learning’ often comes under scrutiny but it may come to represent a more joined-up collaboration between HE Institutions and the work place that remains relevant throughout peoples’ working lives.

What’s the answer?

Both industry and higher-education have started to respond to the need to develop 21st century skills but there is still a long way to go. For individual students facing tough decisions, a lot of research and some self-awareness are vital when it comes to choosing a route that best equips them for a successful future. More self-motivated students may decide that a university degree remains the best path for them but students who prefer more structured, guided training may be better suited to an apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship.

This is just the beginning of the conversation but perhaps instead of industry and universities competing to attract top talent, partnerships may prove to be the best approach when it comes to bridging the skills gap. Collaborations that combine academic study, competency-based skill development, digital learning and hands-on workplace experience with the right assessment strategies underpinning them. As ever, communication between industry and higher-education is the key to it all. When it comes to the economy and our future workforce, we must ensure that we are striving towards the same goal.

Tell us your thoughts and experiences

At McGraw-Hill Education, we will continue to explore this vital topic and create an ongoing discussion. We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences about 21st century skills, student employability and ways to bridge the skills gap.

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