The future of work in Scotland: skills, systems and data

The new Head of Nesta Scotland gives us his first impressions of the skills challenges facing our country.

We are delighted to announce that Nesta is an official partner for our next Future of Work Symposium scheduled for February next year (watch this space for further info). The organisation's Head of Scotland, Adam Lang, has been in post just a few months, and here he kindly gives us his exclusive insight into the challenges facing Scotland's skill system.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to attend or speak at a range of events looking at issues relating to the future of work, skills and employment in Scotland. In reflecting on these events, I am left with one overarching thought: we need to move on from the false-alarmism that dominates much of Scotland’s current discourse about the future of work. We must, instead, embrace and act on the opportunities we have in front of us now to deliver smarter systems and policies.

There is no denying that the changing world of work is one of the issues of the moment in terms of economic and social policy challenges facing Scotland. And it’s not hard to see why - every other week it seems there is a new report published underlining the risks or highlighting the failures in current work and skills policies across the developed economies of the world.

In Scotland, and across the UK, there is already a significant body of research documenting where the challenges currently lie. We know, for example, that gaps and overlaps in the skills system to help develop skills that accurately meet employer demands contributes to the prospect of stagnant pay and low social mobility for too many workers today. On the other side of this coin, businesses say that they are too often unable to find workers with the right skills to meet their needs and last year the Open University estimated that skill shortages cost the Scottish economy more than £360m a year in higher salaries, recruitment costs and temporary staffing bills.

At a national and regional level across Scotland, the lack of alignment between supply and demand of skills contributes to poor productivity growth, which has an adverse effect on living standards and wellbeing. In addition, a 2015 report from Oxfam Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland noted that 444,000 workers in Scotland were paid less than the voluntary living wage and 138,000 workers in Scotland were on temporary contracts.

"We will soon move into the “super aged” category, where more than 21% of the population are aged 65+. By 2028 more than a fifth of Scotland’s population will be aged over 65."

Scotland also faces specific demographic factors that further drive the need for radical innovation into our skills system and labour market. Our population is ageing more rapidly than other UK nations. We will soon move into the “super aged” category recognised by the World Economic Forum, where more than 21% of the population are aged 65+ and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre estimates that by 2028 more than a fifth of Scotland’s population will be aged over 65. Not only will people be working and living longer, but we will also face the reality that there may not be enough people to do the jobs that need done in Scotland.

There is no denying that our worlds of work, skills and education are changing profoundly in Scotland. The reality is that, at both an individual and institutional level, we have too often been running to keep up, rather than taking a more considered and strategic response to these challenges. However, of all the nations of the UK, Scotland is uniquely well positioned to take a world-leading approach to grappling with these issues. We need to embrace and act on this.

At a national level the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework creates an excellent strategic prism to drive joined-up national level investment and innovation into our skills system and labour market modelling. This, combined with the strategic focus on a more inclusive regional labour market as a core element of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, has the potential to leverage significant investment and focus into this important area of skills innovation.


With the Curriculum for Excellence Scotland has also led from the front in creating the right framework to better ensure that the very human skills employers consistently say will be needed more in the future - decision making, judgement, fluency of ideas, problem solving and active learning - are better developed and recognised in our young people. In addition, Scotland’s wider population already enjoys the highest level of basic digital skills of any of the four nations of the UK, with 80% of adults in Scotland using digital and online resources for personal use on a regular basis.

All this means that we are ideally placed to take advantage of innovative new approaches and digital tools that support the better development and alignment of skills to real-time employment opportunities. To turn this potential into reality, there are several key areas that we should now look to act on, including:

  • Developing a more robust and current evidence base of what works in terms of teaching and developing those essential human skills that employers say will be needed more and more in the future.
  • Seek to open up new forms of data to test initiatives like Nesta’s Open Jobs programme that seeks to develop bespoke tools that provide smarter, real-time insight into regional labour markets and how they align with local skills provision
  • Testing the potential of new technologies to better support adult learning and innovation in the provision of in-work skills development, such as with the CareerTech Challenge in England.

Connected to all of these areas of focus is the importance of acting in a more proactive, coherent and aligned way to tackle the common challenges associated with our evolving world of work and skills. Scotland is the right size and scale and has the right abilities to face this head-on and lead the world in delivering a smart skills system fit for the future. So let's get on and do it.


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