31st January approaches – blue passports are printed, grammatically incorrect 50 pence pieces minted. In front of this Brexit backdrop the UK prepares for a brave new world and Boris Johnson calls for us to be ‘one nation’. In this time of unprecedented change, it’s more important than ever to pose the question – do we have the skills we need to thrive?

Many of the current reports on the future of skills address impending problems such as automation and an ageing population, but few address the impact of a major political event on the workforce and skills needs of the UK. Considering the lead period to Brexit, this is somewhat surprising. Though, there are some considerations of this situation. One, interestingly, a feature from The Big Issue in March 2019 detailing how existing labour shortages will be aggravated by lower EU migration – most presciently the lack of nurses which would go on to be a major headline in December’s General Election. Yet, no formal papers have been published.

The answer to this question is not a straightforward one, and in fact many of the future skills predictions made over the years will remain unchanged. Globally, 20 million jobs will still be at risk of automation by 2030 and the UK cannot avoid other issues brought on by an ageing population. Regarding higher level skills fulfilment, the government is already taking action, with the introduction of the uncapped ‘Global Talent’ visa and proposed changes to the minimum visa requirement wage. This decision is a reassuring one, especially for Higher Education and in line with our R&I targets. However, with a decreased number of EU migrants to help fill demand and a potential points based immigration system limiting non-EU migration too, there are still many unknowns when it comes to the future needs of the workforce. Economist Gerard Lyons outlined on News Night this week how the new system would encourage employers to fund skilling of UK workers. However, if the implementation of the Apprenticeship Levy has taught us anything, it’s that employers are more likely to invest in upskilling higher level workers (level 6+), than those on the lower levels that the UK may need.

One thing is more certain though, and that is the value of soft skills. Soft skills (see also interpersonal skills, professional skills etc.) have been around for years and are increasingly at the fore of labour discussions (they even have their own Wikipedia page now). They encompass a range of characteristics such as communication, empathy, flexibility, and collaboration. Soft skills are the exact tools we will need as a nation to cope with the changes ahead. Many employers are investing in soft skills education and resources such as EY’s Future Skills Top Tips provide great overviews of the concept. Whether it’s the ability to remain resilient as you make career transitions to fit economic needs or capacity to collaborate with a diverse range of colleagues in the workplace, the importance of soft skills must not be underestimated. The relevance of these skills has also been highlighted in the work NCUB has been conducting on the future of skills. Over half of the reports we have analysed for an upcoming future of skills literature review mention soft skills. There will be more to come on this work throughout 2020 and we look forward to providing further insights.

So, as the sun sets on our time in the EU, let’s put those soft skills to good use, demonstrate our ability to handle change and practice empathy. Shelve that argument you’ve been having with your brother-in-law about the single market since 2016 and enter into the Brexit era as a truly United Kingdom.