Why adult learning matters

1st August 2017

Great news story from WeForum;

Learning throughout life makes sense. Research shows it is good for your health, your wealth, your civic engagement and your family’s future prospects. It prolongs your independent life and enriches your quality of life.

For companies, investing in worker skills makes sense too – it promotes flexibility and creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and an increased sense of agency among staff, making them happier and more productive. These are, of course, exactly the traits needed as companies face of the challenges of the latest industrial revolution.

For governments, supporting learning in later life helps to delay the onset of dependency among rapidly ageing populations; plays an important role in overcoming inequality and exclusion; and supports inter-generational learning, creating more resilient families and communities. More broadly, learning fosters improved well-being.

Yet research also shows that the best predictor of participation in learning in adult life is extended early participation. In workplaces, spending on training is concentrated on the most skilled and most senior staff. Outside work, it is people who thrived in school and college who willingly invest in their own, continuing education. As the head of an Oxford college, Helena Kennedy, once said: “If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed.” There is nothing inevitable about this, but if lifelong learning really is to be for everyone, governments must actively support those who benefited the least first time round and work with business and civil society in motivating adults to take up learning.

Lifelong learning is not tidy and generates powerful incidental benefits. This is because learning leaks. Skills and aptitudes generated in one context are applied elsewhere. Britain’s Ford Motor Company provided a clear example of this in the 1980s. It agreed at the end of a trade bargaining pay round to allocate 0.3% of its wage bill to a scheme, jointly managed at plant level by managers and blue and white collar unions, to support staff with learning outside of company training. Workers learned to drive, to plaster walls, strengthened their maths, learned Spanish and took Open University degree courses. They took the skills they developed for pleasure back into the workplace. The firm found that absenteeism rates dropped, demarcation disputes on the introduction of new procedures fell back, retention rates improved and the major bi-annual pay strikes symbolic of poor labour relations came to an end. Investing in learning for pleasure improved the bottom line and unions and management alike maintained the scheme as the company downsized its UK workforce over the next 15 years.


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