China Daily

Transforming world's largest workforce into lifelong learners

Skills development must be available to everyone everywhere throughout their lives

China has made unprecedented investments to bring education to the younger generation over the past 30 years, but now the nation faces a new challenge: ensuring that the whole population has the skills to thrive in a fast-changing economy.

Today, 91 percent of teachers in secondary education hold a bachelor's degree or higher, up from only 24 percent in 2000, and the number of college admissions soared to 9.1 million in 2019, from 3.7 million in 2000. Although gaps in quality and access still need to be filled, the system meets the needs of China's industrial economy.

But China is rapidly evolving away from an economy led by industry to one driven by consumption, services and innovation: a post-industrial economy. A transformation of China's talent-development systems is necessary to turn the world's largest workforce into a nation of lifelong learners.

As in the rest of the world, digital technologies and automation are on the rise, and it changes the type of skills that will be in demand. Digitization and automation have accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and therefore the need to reskill and potentially change occupation may have become even more urgent.

Automation will change the skills people need. New McKinsey Global Institute research indicates that 516 billion hours of work activities, assuming each worker works eight hours a day, the equivalent of 87 days on average per worker, may be displaced by automation by 2030 in a midpoint adoption scenario. While the demand for physical and manual skills could fall by 18 percent in the period to 2030, the demand for technological skills could rise by 51 percent. Up to 220 million Chinese workers may need to change occupations by 2030-that's about 30 percent of the workforce. Particular attention will need to be paid to China's millions of migrant workers who tend to be low-skilled and low-paid with little time or money to devote to training. Yet 22 to 40 percent of their jobs are susceptible to automation.

China needs an ambitious plan for reskilling that centers on what we call the "three Es". Everyone needs access to training, notably China's 775 million workers. By 2030, that implies that the system has to accommodate three times as many people as are enrolled in the education system today. Increasing turnover among the younger generation of workers leads to low investment in training provision by employers. Less than 30 percent of Chinese workers perceive new technical or vocational skills training to be urgent.

Content needs to offer everything-the broad capabilities that equip Chinese people for a fast-evolving economy, notably high cognitive skills (such as critical thinking and decision-making), social and emotional skills (such as interpersonal skills and leadership) and technical skills (such as advanced data analysis) will be in demand. This requires investment in developing different content beyond traditional textbooks, such as case studies and hands-on projects as well as new delivery approaches such as participatory learning and experiential training.

Skills development needs to be available everywhere to all throughout their lives. According to official statistics, only 3 million migrant workers out of a total of 291 million took a vocational and technical program in 2019. And a rural-urban divide in funding and teachers' qualifications needs to be overcome.

Based on surveys of best practices in China and around the world, we identified four levers around which pilot projects can be designed to test what works and what does not.

First, digital technologies. Adoption of digital technologies can enable more engaging multichannel learning and teaching. These technologies can empower content creators to deliver "micro curricula", and make content delivery more exciting and personalized by using tools such as artificial intelligence technologies, augmented and virtual reality, and gamification. More than 900 million people could benefit. China is in a good position to digitize education and training, as it accounted for 56 percent of global venture capital investment in education technology in 2019.

Second, a collaborative skills development ecosystem. Expanded public-private partnerships can help address the gap between workforce skills and what employers need. Enterprises can play a more significant role in vocational education, committing themselves to playing a part in the design of curricula, training and recruiting. We see potential for a coalition of school-industry partnerships with the participation by 300,000 companies.

Third, an enhanced vocational education track. Workers need flexibility in returning to school, receiving retraining, and pursuing higher-skill jobs. China could create multiple entry points while also making the vocational education track more attractive to prospective high school students, for instance by expanding a "3+4" model that enables them to go directly to application-oriented universities. Vocational trainers could collaborate more with companies to gain up-to-date knowledge, and, vice versa, more company representatives could come to vocational schools to teach. By 2030, more than 80 percent of vocational teachers could have industry experience in related areas.

Last, shifting attitudes and incentivizing change. To back up such a transformation will require attitudes to change-for everyone to "own" their lifelong learning journeys by using information platforms and a micro-credential system to navigate career options and skills-development paths. Companies can also strengthen the provision of training to develop their own workers, potentially with financial support from the government in the form of co-funding or tax incentives.

Delivering a skills transformation of this scale and pace will be unprecedented. It will require substantial investment, but also a comprehensive approach with the participation of national and local governments, educational institutions, and, crucially, companies. A national leading group could set the strategy with local delivery units delivering it in a way that suits local conditions. Employers, in particular those in the private sector, can also play a crucial role as educators and trainers as well as investors.

China's continued prosperity and economic dynamism as well as the livelihoods of its citizens hinge on wide-ranging reform to the skills of the nation, and the work needs to start now. As the popular saying goes: "It takes 10 years to grow a tree, but 100 years to cultivate people."

Jonathan Woetzel is a senior partner in McKinsey's Shanghai office and the director of McKinsey Global Institute. Jeongmin Seong is the partner of McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey & Co. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

This article originally appeared in China Daily.

Explore a career with us