In our great-grandparents day, the job you started in at 15 was the job you retired from at 70 or so. The work changed slowly if at all, and you learned on the job. If you were fortunate enough to have a skilled occupation, you were apprenticed for the first few years of work.
As work became more complex, apprenticeships became diplomas and degrees, but the mindset remained: what you studied at the start of your chosen career was all the formal learning you required for your working life. Formal graduate qualifications or specialist courses taken mid-career were for the ambitious only. In this century, however, no career path will run so straight. New skills will be required for continuously changing technologies and markets; tasks seen as essential now will become redundant.
The rewarding jobs in 2030 - some say half of all jobs in 2030 - do not yet exist. Most people will switch career paths many times in their working lives.
From a matter of choice for the ambitious few, formal learning while working has become a necessity for a productive and rewarding career. Employers have often recognised this first. To prepare a workforce for change, major employers seek out and support structured learning, investing in full knowledge that while some skills might 'walk out the door', the productivity costs of an untrained workforce are higher.
The development plan has become a core feature of the performance review (and frequently the cause of most embarrassment on the part of the employee in the review discussion). Governments worldwide are subsidising work-based education, and providing income support to mature-age learners. The Rudd Government's Productivity Places Program is a case in point.
So, if lifelong learning is a necessity, what learning is best - especially when continuous change may render obsolete in ten years a skill acquired now? Here are some basic rules:
First, skills that make lifelong learning easier - thinking skills, communication and writing skills, basic numeracy - are not only a good place to start, but refresh capabilities at any time during a career. Thinking skills stimulate new ways of looking at the same tasks, preparing the individual or the team to prosper under change.
Second, every working life, whether comprising serial careers or an occupational path adapting to continuous change, is enhanced by committing to regular, structured learning. A good rule is to take the equivalent of two weeks' intensive learning once every five years. In the intervening five years, the challenges will have changed, and so will the best strategies to address them. Just as important, without a regular and structured program, there is always a human tendency to drift back into comfortable (an ineffective) ways; in effect, to unlearn.
Third, learning is a stretch, and learning which is measured - that is, formally assessed for a qualification - stretches better. Significantly, Chifley's experience is that employers often prefer to invest in a Diploma or graduate program over a non-assessed program because they can be sure that the learning has taken. This is not to say that every program undertaken should be assessed. Sometimes a relaxed mind can be a more open one.
Finally, for a century of innovation, there is no better preparation than by stepping outside the comfort zone. If core career or workforce skills are technical or 'hard', then the 'soft' skills - working with people, teams and performance, communication, negotiation and persuasion, and self-management - will open unseen possibilities. If core skills are at the softer end, then learning something new and technical or 'hard', will give the edge and a new context for the application of core skills. Learning anew might even lead to a change in career or business direction. In this century, that can only be a good thing.
About the author
Neil Edwards is Chief Executive of Chifley Business School. For more information phone 1300 244 353 or visit www.chifley.edu.au