Looking to the future

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 2 2022

Millions of jobs are expected to be displaced by automation and artificial intelligence by 2035, but new job opportunities are likely to cancel this out. Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard shares the latest research on how this will affect the education system. 

Several megatrends are expected to shape the world of work in the coming decades. These include recent factors such as Brexit and the pandemic, as well as longer-term trends such as increasing adoption of technology in the labour market, and major demographic and environmental changes. As highlighted in our recently published literature review, these will change the role workers play in the labour market, in terms of the jobs they do and the skills they need, with a greater demand for skills that complement the new technology. 

The nature of the change in demand for jobs and skills in the future UK labour market is not currently well-understood. Nor are the implications for the education system in helping to meet this challenge. Robust evidence is needed to help education leaders to strategically plan how to meet the increased support for young people and adults to develop the right skills to do the right jobs at the right time. 

Key insights 
The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has published its second suite of reports in its The Skills Imperative 2035: Essential skills for tomorrow’s workforce (tinyurl.com/55xc73fm) five-year research programme (funded by the Nuffield Foundation). These highlight the potential impact of megatrends on the size and composition of the labour market. The findings outlined in these reports are a culmination of a series of future labour market projections. The projections provide the following insights: 

  • The economy is changing slowly, but steadily and inexorably. By 2035, the structure of the labour market will have changed substantially. 

  • Brexit and the pandemic caused the economy to contract sharply, but it will recover. 

  • Millions of jobs are likely to be lost due to the adoption of new technologies in the labour market by 2035, but new roles, particularly in education, health and care services, are likely to cancel this out. 

  • There are projected to be 2.6 million new jobs by 2035, the majority of which will be taken by females. 

  • Employment in the health sector is expected to increase the fastest, with about 369,000 new jobs by 2035. 

  • The sectors with the largest employment declines will be in manufacturing: metal products (-41,000) and other transport equipment (-22,000). 

  • Almost all new jobs created by 2035 will be in professional and associate professional occupations. 

  • Job losses will be focused among blue collar manual occupations, especially in areas where automation is possible, as well as among less skilled white-collar non-manual occupations. n Trends for young people acquiring more and higher level qualifications will continue. 

  • The UK economy will see a substantial recovery in gross value added (GVA) output by 2035, following the sharp decline in the pandemic. The construction (+2.4 per cent pa) and trade, accommodation and transport (+2.1 per cent pa) sectors are expected to lead the way. 

Role of education 
More young people will continue their education and acquire more and higher level qualifications, replacing those who are leaving the labour market who are less qualified. By 2035, the number of economically active people with a postgraduate degree level and equivalent (Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) Level 7–8) is projected to rise to about 8.3 million, compared to 4.7 million in 2020. 

This will impact the size of the future teacher workforce, particularly post-16, across academic and technical/vocational education and training. Given there is already a workforce issue to resolve in schools and colleges (there are an estimated 6,000 job vacancies in colleges in England3, and growing attrition rates of secondary school teachers in England ), this needs urgently addressing, and workforce planning for qualification pathways to support future skills requirements is also needed. 

In addition, consideration will need to be given to the specific roles that different pathways and qualifications play in generating different skills, and how the education system can help young people (and adult learners) develop essential employment skills needed in the future. In the next stages of our research, we will be examining how different educational trajectories lead to individuals entering particular professions and sectors. This will enable us to identify which specific educational trajectories could be expanded to help meet future labour market demand. These insights will also help shape improvements to careers advice and guidance. 

Key recommendations 
Given the cross-cutting nature of the challenges presented by these projected labour market changes, we recommend that a cross-cutting body is established, reporting directly to the Cabinet Office. This body would be responsible for working effectively across government departments with employers and other stakeholders to ensure that appropriate strategies are developed to (1) understand the implications of these changes in more detail and (2) set out how the government, employers, training providers and the education system should respond, drawing on views and expertise from across and outside government. 

We also recommend that industry leaders and representative bodies work with regional and local partners, including mayoral combined authorities and local authorities, to assess what these projections mean for employment and output growth in their sectors or industries. These groups also need to consider the business-critical occupations they will need in future and start planning what actions they need to take. 

As our findings indicate, there will be an increase in employment opportunities for highly skilled professionals and associate professionals. Unless plans are put in place and action is taken soon, there will be a shortage of skilled professionals available to fill these new opportunities. This includes the government working closely with school and college leaders to understand how teacher recruitment and retention can be improved and maintained. 

Next steps 
Our research programme is now building on this work, to examine how the demand for skills needed by employers will change over the next decade and identify which employment skills will be most needed. We are also assessing what the potential supply of these essential employment skills will be in future, where skills gaps are likely to arise and which groups are most at risk of not having the essential employment skills needed and considering what actions are needed to support groups to transition to other opportunities. 

An important focus for the next phase of the programme includes consideration of the extent to which current education provision in England can support the development of the essential employment skill set that will be needed in future, and in preparing young people who will be entering the labour market in the next 15 years. The scope of this phase will include the different pathways (including routes and qualifications) through which skill sets are developed for 16–18 year-olds, as well as examination of other factors (such as socio-economic background) that may impact on skill development. 


  1. tinyurl.com/4dvmcsr4 
  2. tinyurl.com/4kyf5tn8 
  3. tinyurl.com/3j9vh672

Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard 
NFER Research Director 

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