James Bream: Teaching old dogs new tricks is not just possible, it’s vital to our economy

James Bream.
James Bream.

Learning as we get older used to be a big buzz in Government. It was called ‘Lifelong Learning’ but that phrase seems to have disappeared in the last decade which is not a good thing.

I’m a fan of lifelong learning not because of the stated economic benefits but because I didn’t exactly excel and school or at University. My lifelong learning has been done out of necessity.

I’ve been reflecting on this issue for a few reasons. The first is I’ve been asked to speak at my old school’s awards ceremony, and I don’t know how honest I should be about my lack of success there as I actually feel a bit embarrassed about it. The second reason is I met up with some friends over the weekend who I studied with about 20 years ago.

At the age of 18 we had lots in common but the evening certainly showed that the last 20 years have influenced us all more than four years of formal education did.

The scene on Saturday night resembled a cheaper version of a Poirot murder mystery table with a bunch of people you’d never imagine being together – small, bald, very tall, women, men, grey, blonde, ginger – I best not go on. The group included a champagne socialist banker, a law man, a bean counter, two involved in charitable type activities and one in an important role focused on international trade. The latter knew more about things like customs and backstops that I will ever know and I am sure she studied marketing. I hope they don’t read this after that intro but they’ve actually done alright for themselves.

The thing that struck me was that we have all progressed at different rates and learned at different times and in different ways. I’m about to get melancholy but some of the lifelong learning is nothing to do with work, the lessons were learned from experiences, some painful and sad, some joyous and happy. We have shared many of these experiences together, yet we have shared nothing in a work context.

In a work environment the lessons we learn are often more about people, teams, competency, analysis and analogous application than reading textbooks. I am pretty sure our cross border trade expert didn’t read her stuff in a book and neither did our environmental expert. So this brings me back to learning as an adult and my experience of school and current Government policy.

Every day is, as they say, a school day. This most commonly used phrase simply means, when we make a mistake we should learn from it or that we have found out something new and useful.

It is a throw away comment but is probably one which is more important than we know.

Economic based academic studies have shown if we aren’t learning as we go on in life we are probably losing out financially. A quick search will provide you with evidence that people who undertake lifelong learning benefit in a number of ways.

The benefits include improved employment opportunities and better earning potential. Furthermore, the results are more positive in an employment context when the learning is given formal educational recognition.

Government policy has moved towards recognising vocational achievement in the workplace and blending this with academic education. These efforts are particularly focused on the young, I think that is great and we are bringing in our first apprentice in September at Katoni. Our apprentice will be coming straight from school and undertaking a ‘Graduate Degree’ which allows them to work and also secure a degree at Robert Gordon University.

The current direction towards integrating vocational and academic learning feels right. However, it seems to me we need to press it further across the workforce and make more effort as businesses, individuals and educators to encourage lifelong learning of this type and formally recognise it. I believe this could help create a level of equity in roles which are highly skilled but low paid. For example, it doesn’t seem right that care and many hospitality roles are relatively poorly paid compared to some jobs where skills are more recognised with degrees and certifications. I wonder if we can encourage more people in the workplace to engage in a hybrid of formal educational and work-based learning which will help our economy and them as individuals.

For my champagne socialist friend this approach will also help all individuals demonstrate that we are all actually quite equal as our respective skill sets all have important roles to play in the economy. In addition we can all use the phrase every day is a school day and know that we really mean it.

James Bream was research and policy director at Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce and is now general manager of Aberdeen-based Katoni Engineering