The time is now – tomorrow’s industries are here today

Martin Hamilton, futurist at Jisc, takes a whistlestop tour of England, looking at how colleges and universities are preparing learners for the jobs of the near future

If I was to ask you to picture Grimsby Royal Docks, what would you imagine? The caw of seagulls and the salty tang of the sea air? Or perhaps trawlers unloading the day’s catch, ready to ship to the nation’s chippies.

Related news: Jisc: college and university staff don’t get enough support with edtech

However, the area is now home to the operations hub for Hornsea One, the world’s biggest offshore wind energy farm. Hornsea One is as state-of-the-art as it gets, but this isn’t some high-tech solutionism imported fully formed; every wind turbine blade was made just over the Humber Bridge in Hull.

Grimsby Institute has risen to the challenge, working with Hornsea One developer Ørsted, to offer wind energy technician apprenticeships that lead directly to a job working in the renewable energy industry. Grimsby Institute is also making good use of mixed reality and simulations to support training in fields as diverse as welding, lorry driving and fish packing.

And the college team is also responsible for a daily logistical feat, transporting students from all corners of rural north Lincolnshire – one of the most deprived regions in the country – to campus every day on a fleet of coaches it owns and operates.

Road, river and rail

Road, river and rail
River Trent // Image via Wikimedia Commons

Now let’s take a trip upstream on the River Trent to Derby, an area with a rich history in aeronautical and automotive engineering dating back to George Stephenson’s pioneering locomotives of the 1840s. Forget steam and diesel, though – tomorrow’s trains will be electric hydrogen ‘bi-mode’ hybrids, which will require a new set of skills to build and maintain.

The University of Derby’s Rail Research and Innovation Centre recently secured a £900,000 grant to work with local companies in the rail supply chain to upskill staff in areas including novel propulsion techniques, artificial intelligence, data analytics and the Internet of Things. At the same time, the university has been working with Jisc to understand and develop its own staff digital capability to fully exploit the potential of technology in teaching and learning.

More from Martin Hamilton: Roundtable: Does tech in schools always need to be new? Martin Hamilton answers

Down the A38 to Birmingham Airport, we catch a flight to Newquay – an area probably best known for sand and surf. Think again. Behind the scenes, Spaceport Cornwall will soon open its doors as the first operational UK spaceport – and its partner, Virgin Orbit, has modified a Boeing 747 jet airliner known as ‘Cosmic Girl’ to carry its LauncherOne rocket under its wing, releasing it to ignite and accelerate into orbit after reaching cruising height of 35,000 feet.

This air launch approach is a radical new technique that will drastically reduce the cost of accessing space for small satellites, where the UK is already a world leader. What effect will that have on the local economy and education? People may be needed in the supply chain, servicing the jets and rockets, and building the hardware. It’s quite a profound shift.


Image via Freepik

By identifying potential opportunities for the future, universities and colleges can ensure their courses are fit for purpose, decide whether they should offer new programmes, and determine how they can deliver a forward-thinking, technology-enhanced Education 4.0.

Students need to take a long hard look at the horizon too. Despite Office for Students predications that more than a million digitally skilled people will be needed by 2022, and a recognition within the government’s edtech strategy that ‘technology is increasingly part of our society’, only 49% of 13,389 FE students and 70% of 14,525 HE students responding to a recent Jisc survey agree that digital skills are needed in their chosen career.

New tools, new skills

new tools new skills
A 3D scanner in use // Image via Wikimedia Commons

Jisc is developing services to support future-focused courses, such as our new free 3D scanning service, which enables learning providers to replicate real objects in a virtual world. We’re also working with suppliers that can create immersive experiences in classrooms. We recently had a request to scan knives, guns and ammunition cases, creating a virtual environment in which students can safely learn to work with forensic evidence that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to interact with.

You might also like: Digital skills are key to 4th industrial revolution
Paul Feldman, chief executive at Jisc, discusses how digital skills will be essential to coming IT revolution

Learners deserve to be trained with the skills required in a technology-enhanced environment, but they still want the old stuff too. The sense of community and access to real, hand-on facilities is, for Grimsby Institute’s students, enough to warrant three hours’ bus travel every day. The jobs of the future will require new skills and creative vision, underpinned by technology and informed by market needs – but always led by human interaction.