Fixing the skills system: One step forward, two steps back
By Alex Davies - Research Analyst
The failures of the skills system in this country is an issue that we’ve been talking about for what seems like an eternity, and one which doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon. There are all sorts of ways in which the market is mismatching what is demanded with what is supplied, and over the years many things have been attempted to improve how it functions. When the system fails, the stakeholders who lose out include not just businesses who struggle to find the people they need, but young and hardworking people who can so easily be left behind as the demands of the economy change. By not delivering the skilled workers that businesses need to grow, or by training people in skills that aren’t necessarily in demand, the failures of the system impact upon individual livelihoods, as well as growth and productivity within the economy.
A longstanding issue is that of perceptions. We have found for example, that qualifications other than NVQs are generally not considered to be competency based, when they very often they are. We also tend to see too much of a focus on the title of qualification itself, rather than the skills that are actually taught. People who train as hairdressers for example, are often perfectly suited for other customer-facing jobs. When an employer looks solely at qualifications rather than the skills of the individual, both can lose out. On the other end, young people very often do not know the options available to them, seeing construction as being 5 traditional skills rather than hundreds, or not understanding the vast array of routes good maths skills can open up. This again, leads to surplus supply of skills in some areas and massive undersupply in others.
There is also the impact of infrastructure. Young people in particular will often struggle to get to where they need to be to learn the skills they want, particularly when coming from areas outside of city centres. Take Greater Manchester as an example, it is easy to get from say, Bolton to the city centre for a job, but getting from Bolton to Rochdale to train as a plumber is often too difficult to be an option for many. Mayor Andy Burnham’s plan to introduce free bus travel for 16-18’s may ease this in this region, but the problem persists elsewhere and better transport links are always needed.
The future presents its own challenges. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy is well intentioned, but significant questions have been raised about its ability to deliver not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of improving lives and helping businesses function. Will businesses actually use the pot of money they are forced to contribute to? If they do, will it be on delivering new, quality training, or will it just be on accreditation of existing skills? The volume of training has increased over the past decade but with a large focus on particular routes, not delivering the diverse range and quality that is required. It isn’t clear whether the levy provides the right incentives for this to change, or instead if it will simply help the current government reach its apprenticeship targets.
Then of course, we have Brexit to deal with. Many of our industries are heavily reliant on talent abroad, and any changes to immigration policy that makes it more difficult for businesses to access talent will only exacerbate the mismatches we see currently. The problems within the system are obviously multi-faceted, but Brexit has the potential to add a whole new dimension. Whilst the next government will be unable to solve all the problems the skills system faces, it can certainly make small steps in the right direction. With Brexit happening at the same time however, they will need to make sure that it isn’t one step forward, two steps back.
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