Innovation and emerging skills

In January 2021, the Government published the FE White Paper – Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth. The ambitions set out in the White Paper for transforming technical education are significant. Gatsby believes that a key element to achieving this transformation is ensuring that technical education is responsive to the needs of innovation.

Innovation and emerging skills
Businesses need access to talented people with the right knowledge, skills and experience to drive innovation-fuelled growth.
Government Innovation Strategy, July 2021

We are currently undertaking several areas of research and proof of principle projects to establish how best to:

  • ensure a common framework for the foresighting of emerging skills is adopted across industries
  • identify and support the organisations and institutions best-suited to provide the appropriate training and upskilling to enable innovation to happen

Current Interest Areas

The Role of Catapults and other Centres of Innovation

Catapults and similar Centres of Innovation such as the National Physical Labratory, are at the heart of translating research and innovation into technology applications that can make our work more productive. However, firms will still continue to need people with a range of skills, some new, if they are to benefit from opportunities created by this emerging technology.

The Innovation Strategy notes that Catapults and other Centres of Innovation are uniquely placed to enable the skills system to prepare people at all stages of their working lives to take advantage of tomorrow’s technologies. We are continuing to build on the evidence base we have generated through previous work with Cell and Gene Therapy and High Value Manufacturing Catapults to demonstrate the critical role of these types of Centres of Innovation  part in closing the gap between the UK's skills and innovation systems. 

Catapults were set up to work with academia and industry to help bridge what is often called 'The valley of death', from research (where the UK is world class) - to commercialisation (where the UK has been less successful). A major output of Catapults is the creation and dissemination of knowledge that would enable the development of new technology and its deployment in industry. Up until now the Catapults have not had a systematic role in helping businesses understand the skills requirements of new technologies and the actions necessary to secure the relevant skills when needed. Our current work seeks to identify any challenges that to date may have hindered the bedding in of this role for the Catapults.

Foresighting and a Skills Value Chain

Based on best international practice, Gatsby has supported the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) to develop a model for a skills value chain. The model illustrates how and at what stage different organisations need to collaborate and engage to ensure that the skills system can provide timely and local training for upskilling the existing workforce and updating apprenticeships and technical qualifications. Critically, the model has not been developed to be unique to manufacturing, but to be applicable across sectors and industries

The skills value chain starts with foresighting. Foresighting is not rocket science, but does require effort and commitment. Its aim is to understand the difference between the skills that the workforce has today and the skills that will be needed in a few years’ time. Much of tomorrow’s technology is already here but only in a small number of organisations. By bringing together: 

  • technologists involved in innovation
  • the educators who will train the next generation who will be using new technologies; and
  • the employers who will use the new technologies (and hire the people trained to use them) 

the language of business and technology can be translated into something that can be acted on by colleges and universities.

The foresighting process starts by understanding what capabilities a firm will require to adopt a new technology as part of future supply chains - in short it starts at the skills needs of an organisation. Once these capabilities requirements are understood by educators, they can begin to unpick what individuals will need to do to deliver this capability.

Often this will mean an individual takes on a new duty or does things in a different way - it may even reveal that a new role will be needed. Occupational duty requirements can be expressed in terms of knowledge, skills and behaviours. This taxonomy of duties, knowledge, skills and behaviours makes it possible to carry out a gap analysis of existing qualifications and apprenticeships (which uses a similar taxonomy), revealing where any changes or additions are needed. It's also a valauble tool to describe any gaps in the competencies of the existing workforce which can be addressed with training that reflects employers’ short and longer term needs.

HVMC and Enginuity have used this approach to understand the impact of Industrial Digitalisation on the Automotive sector. Their work suggests that current apprenticeship standards are rather light on the digital element, for example technicians will need to be able to: “[...] use digital production and process simulation/modelling tools for workflow and process optimisation activities”. 

A key point about the foresighting process is that by starting at organisational skill needs, there is little scope for unhelpful bias to creep in about what qualificational or occupational levels these needed skills sit within. In the past, the UK has been guilty of assuming that innovation is the work of graduates, but foresighting shows that the successful adoption of technology requires a mix of skills at different levels. Both colleges and universities therefore have key roles in preparing the workforce of the future.

Learning Factories

Gatsby commissioned Dr Stuart Edwards to review what opportunities the concept of Learning Factories in the UK bring in enhancing collaboration between industry and technical education and what existing facilities and approaches could be better co-ordinated to get the most out of the Learning Factories model.

The concept of a learning factory refers to a facility with aspects of an authentic production environment designed and used primarily for the purpose of learning. The purpose of The Opportunities for Learning Factories in the UK report is to lay the groundwork for implementing the promotion of learning factories in the UK following our work with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult described above. 

The report's main recommendations are:

  • the need for a systematic mapping exercise of existing and planned learning factory facilities across the UK to inform planning and investment at both national and regional levels, as well as more networking and sharing of expertise
  • more attention to building the specialist staff expertise needed to operate learning factory facilities and maximise return on capital investment made
  • a co-ordinated approach to developing and sharing specialised learning resources across learning factory networks, including reviewing any common technical standards required
  • a concerted effort to use digital technologies such as simulations and digital twins to extend the reach of what can be done through physical learning factory facilities.

Gatsby has identified the first recommendation as an area that we can meaningfully support, so we currently scoping a rapid audit of existing facilities, with a view to identifying where there are gaps in provision and opportunities for better collaboration and consolidation. 

Further Education Colleges and Innovation

Gatsby has long championed the role that Further Education (FE) plays in contributing to the nation’s prosperity. The training that FE can offer enables the development of emerging skills which in turn will allow firms to make the best use of new technologies. FE also supports firms, particularly SMEs, to introduce new technology, processes, or products. Our report, Further Education Colleges and Innovation, by Elaine Baxter, former head of the Innovation Lab at Procter & Gamble, provides deeper insight into how this unique, important, but sometimes undervalued, role works in practice.

The report, a short, qualitative study of a selection of colleges in England, offers intelligence on the extent to which these colleges are supporting innovation in their local areas. When asked about their role in innovation, colleges’ first thoughts are often around innovation in the curriculum or teaching. Elaine found however, that many colleges are also working with employers to drive innovation in the workplace, which in turn leads to increasing innovation in the colleges. For example:

  • Bishop Burton College is looking at how big data can be shared with farmers to increase the use of precision farming in the local area. By mapping the variability within fields, farmers can ensure better targeted crop nutrient and pesticide application.
  • Fareham College has built a state-of-the-art training facility for a range of engineering disciplines which is co-located with the Fareham Innovation Centre. Companies are happy to offer the college expert presentations and in return they have access to equipment such as 3D printing that they can use for prototyping. 

With current concerns around automation and AI, innovation may be seen as a threat to jobs. However, there is a strong argument that innovation can also drive up the skills requirements and quality of many existing jobs. By engaging with employers to improve innovation, colleges can help to secure high quality employment in their area as well as driving up the demand for higher skills.

There are of course wider benefits of engaging local businesses with colleges, not least around the supply of industry placements, maintaining currency of the curriculum, and potential loan of industry-grade equipment and exchange of staff.

Recognising the role that colleges can play in the diffusion of R&D will be critical to the levelling-up agenda and supporting SMEs to take advantage of the UK’s world class research base. For colleges to become part of the innovation engine, a greater focus on innovation being part of their raison d’etre, rather than a nice to have, is what is required.