Watson’s words on future of work ring true – and why we need a “right to learn”

Last week, Tom Watson rightly challenged the idea of a dystopian future created by new technologies. Despite huge advances in what is possible with artificial intelligence and robotics, a workless age is an unlikely prospect.

It is true, some jobs will go. But, for most jobs, their tasks will simply change. There will be greater automation of repetitive and mundane aspects of work, with more emphasis on elements involving creativity and emotional intelligence.

New jobs will also be created. And they are likely to be skilled, enjoyable, and better-paid. In short, a future of better and more flourishing work could be upon us.

The reality of technology changing how we work and the jobs we do is nothing new. Just think of the steam engine, computers, or the internet, to name a few of the great technologies of history. But this time, change will be different: it will be faster, more disruptive in places, and with greater unpredictability.

If they are not to be left behind, workers will have to constantly learn about new concepts, develop their skills and gain new ones, and become digitally adept. To put it bluntly, to prosper in an age of augmented employment, people must keep up with the times.

To help everyone achieve this and adapt to changes in work and jobs, they need to be supported by the right policy framework. Labour has committed to introducing a national education service (NES), akin to our NHS, that will provide free learning, from cradle to grave.

The education service will be integral to retraining, upskilling, and increasing overall education levels amongst the adult population. But to succeed, people must have time and capacity to actually engage in learning or work-related training.

Currently, the law only gives employees a right to request training, which employers can easily reject. If a firm does approve a request, then employees then face another challenge of getting any time off, as well as getting the employer to pay for the course, which it is under no obligation to do. Research by IPPR, found British employers pay only half the EU average per employee for work-related training.

But, worst of all, this right to request only applies to those working for firms larger than 250 employees. Yet, over 99 per cent of businesses in Britain are small and medium-sized enterprises (0-249 employees). That means over 15.7 million people have no right to request time off for training. This is unacceptable.

A mere right to request time off for training is not enough for the huge challenges facing us as a society. We must be bolder and go further. In an increasingly digital and disruptive world of work, people will need to “learn, learn, learn” if they are to successfully adapt to changes at work resulting from technology and harness new opportunities. We need a shift in mindset, that not only celebrates lifelong learning but places it at the heart of everyday working life.

That’s why we must introduce a new statutory “right to learn”. This measure would guarantee all employees across the country, whatever size business they work for, a legal right to learn from day one of their employment. It will accrue as soon as someone starts work, like paid holiday.

To help firms adapt to this new workplace entitlement, the policy could be phased in over several years. The goal should ultimately be to reach two weeks of paid time off for learning and training each year.

Individuals would be able to choose how they took their paid learning leave, either all in one go, or in shorter segments. They would also be able to decide what and how they wanted to learn. For instance, a worker might prefer an experiential learning experience using augmented reality technologies as opposed to a formal qualification.

Staff will have real flexibility and ownership over their right to learn, allowing them to tailor it best to their needs and goals. Though as condition of taking any right to learn paid time off, they would be expected to evidence all learning and training done.

Businesses and workers would benefit greatly from this measure. Guaranteeing staff dedicated time to focus on their learning would help increase the overall level of skills in the workplace, which would have a big impact on productivity. In a study of US workplaces by the National Centre on Educational Quality, they found that on average a 10 per cent increase in workforce education levels led to a 8.6 per cent increase in productivity.

Firms would also benefit from greater staff retention and motivation, as firms that do not train their employees are three times more likely to lose them.

Firms which are more productive aren’t just more successful, they are also integral to boosting pay for workers. Pay growth has been negative for eight consecutive months, and Britain is now heading for the longest stagnation in incomes for over 150 years.

But a right to learn will give British employees the opportunity to learn so they can progress into more senior (and better paid) roles within their organisation, or into new jobs elsewhere.

This measure would also go some way to addressing the discontent that drove so many people to vote for Brexit. Detailed research by the BBC found the lower the level of your education, the more likely you were to vote for Brexit. By giving everyone the opportunity to develop their skills, they will feel more confident and prepared in a fast-moving and technology driven globalised world.

Last week at a Resolution Foundation event, Ed Miliband said the labour market can be “brutal”. He’s right, for many people it is really tough. And unless we support workers by ensuring they have the time and capacity to constantly engage in learning and adapt to changes in work, the future could be even worse for them. Right to learn, is a policy for the many, not the few. So let’s make it happen.

Rayhan Haque is a member of staff at a leading employer group, leading their future of work activities, and writes in a personal capacity.

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