A new flexible world of work - Professor Gordon McConnell


Tuesday 21 May 2019

Writing in The Scotsman, Prof McConnell outlines RGU's steps to support new ways of flexible, adaptable and innovative entrepreneurialism.

We are starting to see a real innovation mindset change in a growing segment of the working population, particularly the generation that is currently entering the workforce. Driven by the digital transformation of society, many are now choosing career paths which are flexible, varied, autonomous and entrepreneurial in nature. 

Trends in the UK labour market reflect a significant growth in self-employment in recent years. Varying estimates show that up to 3 million people on a regular basis, and potentially as many as 5 million at any given time across the UK, are now part of what is broadly referred to as the ‘gig economy’. These are individuals who work in contract or freelance positions on a short term basis as opposed to permanent contracted employment. Many do this on a full-time basis where they juggle a number of freelance roles and others do it part-time to add to their existing income streams.

Although much of the attention has been on issues around zero contract hours, worker rights and hourly pay, there is another part of this ‘gig economy’ that is quite different. These roles are for highly skilled self-employed contractors who are becoming an increasingly important source of expertise for small and medium sized businesses, particularly in the areas of digital and related technology. They also form teams to create scaleable new start-up companies, taking advantage of niches in the marketplace and skills shortages.

We are now seeing an increasing number of young graduates following this less traditional career pathway, opting for flexibility and entrepreneurship over structure. Understanding this ‘work for yourself’ option is important for the future of Scotland’s economy as these individuals address skills shortages, support scale-up activity and lead to the creation of new businesses which stimulates economic development.

In higher education it is crucial to respond to these changes in the way we work, which, in turn, is reflected in the graduate skills needs of today. Universities must not only respond to the changing learner demand but also the needs of industry and the economy. Robert Gordon University (RGU) prides itself on its professionally focused and relevant curriculum which is responsive to the changing employment landscapes, evolving skills needs and the shifting educational environment.

Building on RGU’s sustained track record of one of the highest graduate employability rates in the UK, the university is preparing students for the changing world of work, including self-employment as part of the thriving ‘gig economy’. The university recognises that entrepreneurship is now a career choice for many graduates. Embedding innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the university is therefore a matter of strategic importance. It has launched of a number of different initiatives that aim to encourage this shift to entrepreneurial and innovative thinking and working, and that take into account the university’s role in broader economic development.

Last year RGU launched its start-up accelerator to offer students another way of developing their careers while still at university, providing them with an opportunity to engage with start-up activity. It is the first funded programme of its kind in North East Scotland and supports teams of staff, students and alumni entrepreneurs to turn their business ideas into reality through a mentor led process. It is supported by bite-sized teaching modules will help these new founders to develop their ideas, articulate their value proposition and scale-up their business idea.

Additionally, a wide variety of accessible and flexible start-up, entrepreneurial ‘work-for-yourself’ and innovation programmes are now freely available for all students. Students can develop their entrepreneurial skills through a series of monthly, practical workshops delivered by subject experts from industry, covering topics such as intellectual property, social entrepreneurship, design thinking and understanding the customer. There is also a series of lectures which allow attendees to gain insight from expert industry speakers and entrepreneurs from around the world.

To support the physical infrastructure in Aberdeen, the university has partnered to launch a dedicated regional hub for digital and entrepreneurship activity in Aberdeen. The development of the Hub will see one of RGU’s iconic and historic city centre buildings reinvigorated as a centre for new activity and investment, providing hot-desking, co-working spaces for early stage companies and provide opportunities for collaboration. This will be the home for the university’s newly launched creative accelerator over the summer which is dedicated to supporting business creation in the creative industries.

The overall purpose of this activity is to prepare the next generation for an innovative, fluid, flexible and hopefully productive future. Providing increasing entrepreneurial opportunities for students is enhancing not just the student experience or the learner journey, but also driving economic growth and ensuring there is a supply of skilled graduates which are agile, adaptable and able to take advantage of the changing world of work throughout their careers.