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Never Too Old to Learn

January 28, 2011

Loup Brefort, Country Manager for Serbia, The World Bank

This article was published in NIN weekly magazine on January 27, 2011

“Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it” noted Albert Einstein a long time ago. This is true more than ever in today’s world. Knowledge is fast replacing physical resources and cheap labor as the driver of growth. There is a lot of evidence that economic development is now increasingly linked to a nation’s ability to acquire and apply knowledge.

Back in 1958 Ghana and Republic of Korea had almost the same GDP. Thirty years later Korea is eight times richer country. Why? Researchers attribute less than a half of Korea’s success to difference due to physical and human capital. The rest is attributed to knowledge. 

I guess everyone is aware that modern technologies and globalization shapes demand for jobs. While in 1969 almost half of the people in the USA were employed as blue collar workers, thirty years later below a quarter of them had that occupation. At the same time demands for administrative support workers decreased by almost 10 percent. Nevertheless, during the period demand for service workers, sales related occupations, technicians, professional occupations, and managers and administrators went up more than 20 percent. 

Since nowadays modern technologies are changing very fast, so are mix of jobs and mix of tasks within jobs. It is no surprise then that investment climate surveys show employers are looking less for specific skills and more for flexible, analytical skills. One can argue that today it is even dangerous to focus on narrow technical specialties: we can’t know if these techniques will be still widely used and in demand in the firms of tomorrow. I will not quite exaggerate if I tell you that people will have to change professions like their hats. 

In car industry, for example, there is almost no demand anymore for routine manual tasks, such as installing windshields on new vehicles. This is mostly done by robots.  So is counting and packaging pills into containers in pharmaceutical firms. However, we still need humans to drive trucks, to clean buildings, or to set gems in engagement rings. But there are signs not even these jobs are here to stay as robotics advances fast. The rule doesn’t apply to manual jobs only; some routine cognitive tasks can be accomplished by just following a set of rules and they are also candidates for computerizing. Some examples: maintaining expense reports; filling new information provided by insurance costumers; or evaluating applications for mortgages.     

So, what needs to be done in order to make people employable in the future? It seems obvious that education system needs to be forward-looking. Many of the inputs into the system should come from private investors/managers: they can tell what their plans are for the future and in which sectors. But these conditions transform rapidly; therefore, we have to make sure education system is flexible enough to adjust to a quick change in labor demand. We can ensure this by focusing education on broad knowledge rather than narrow technical specialties. Skills that make people adaptable to new jobs and tasks are: critical thinking, problem solving, ability to integrate information, and team work.

In the end, even if we develop the best education system in the world it might not be enough. Here the concept of lifelong learning comes in. Its major task is to create opportunities essential to make peoples’ skills continuously up-to-date with contemporary technologies and modern ways of doing business.  This implies we will have to study throughout our lives and will never be too old to learn.  The World Bank has a large proportion of staff with Masters or PhD degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Nevertheless, it devotes significant resources to training of its staff that are strongly encouraged to take advantages of these resources to update, upgrade and expand their knowledge and skills throughout their careers.

It is also an opportunity for smart entrepreneurs. John Sperling, former sailor, is today one of America’s richest men. How did he do it? He started with distance-learning courses for the police and for school teachers who had to deal with teenage delinquency. Inspired by a huge success of the project, he suggested setting up degree courses for older people who were already working full-time.  After some complications Mr. Sperling and his firm Apollo Group ended up with 140,000 students enrolled in 170 cities. More than 52 percent of America’s working adults are now enrolled in some sort of course.

Finally, even more “revolutionary” ideas are floating around. One top class Korean University is considering giving degrees that have a 10 year “expiration date”, thus formalizing the recognition that even the best education becomes quickly obsolete in a rapidly changing world and encouraging its alumni to retrain at intervals to remain competitive in the evolving job market. Well, no one has formally gone this route – yet. But the labor market throughout the world is sending us unequivocal message: we should never be too old to learn.