Too often when we think about lifelong learning, it applies only to those who have been in the workforce for some time. The reality is that the learning journey should never stop.
The apparent confusion about terms is partly a result of ‘lifelong learning’ being misapplied to cover only more established team members who need to update their skills or if someone needs to re-skill after losing their job. But this is all too little, too late.
Instead learning needs to become a fundamental part of any role from the very outset, from Day One, not simply ‘added in’ later when gaps start to appear. We must get away from the idea that learning ends, or is at best paused, after sixth form, an apprenticeship or university.
New employees are often subject to a world of initial training and induction to ensure that they are up-to-speed in the new role. But once that initial period comes to an end then there is a danger of learning silence. That person has had their allocated training and the employer moves onto the next new intake.
Sometimes new employees are expected to impart their knowledge to more established members as a sort of quid pro quo for learning on the job. There is no doubt that such a practical element is essential but there is no guaranteeing that either party is particularly adept at helping the other. So, it may be that something more structured and formal is required as well.
It should not be a case of simply being thankful for whatever support you are given. Instead, we should all be more demanding about the training options open to us, especially early on. Problems often arise when there is a gap between an induction and then a return to training. That gap must be filled. The bigger the gap, the more there is to fill.
The gap is what causes problems. These will vary depending on the role but could include an unfamiliarity with current thinking or new technologies, or lacking the skills necessary to cope with a new challenge.
Some employers will allocate funding or a learning budget per person but that does not always apply to everyone across an organisation. Again, there can be an over-emphasis on more established team members. This lack of equality across an organisation needs to be challenged. Employers could also have a bigger role in communicating more about the potential options available. It would make joining them even more attractive.
But we also have a personal responsibility as well. Even if funds are available then it is up to us to use them. That means being able to identify where our weaknesses are, what we need to improve and frankly how we can continue to get ahead of others as well (internally as well as externally). We all need to challenge ourselves and ask how we can be a leader in our chosen field and what training support we need to achieve that.
Looking at what others are doing and being inspired by them is a good starting point. But also look through training brochures and check the courses available. Consider what your professional and trade bodies offer. Maybe try and spend time with other teams in your own organisation as well. The role of mentors too can be hugely helpful in helping identify what to address.
There needn’t though always be a cost associated. Many bodies offer free or low-cost options, especially to existing members.
It doesn’t need to be all about you either. If there is a common need across a team then employers could provide you all with something as it may be cost effective for them. Certainly, that has been my experience when dealing with training on public affairs and reputation management issues.
Teachers, lecturers, trainers of all types have a role in getting us into good habits focused on ongoing learning. So too do employers. But we must take responsibility and hold employers to account on training and remind them of the benefits – not least improved retention and loyalty.
We need to beware of the emergence of learning gaps and think about lifelong learning as the truly continuous process it should be.
The writer is Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans