By Kevin Rowan
There is common ground that expanding quality sustainable employment must be a key plank of our efforts to rebuild the post-Covid economy and achieve a much fairer society. And there is also a consensus that access to well-paid jobs depends significantly on opening up opportunities to learning and skills for young people and adults alike, especially as almost all occupations are increasingly subject to technological change and the utilisation of AI.
Promoting access to learning especially applies to those who are too often locked out of education and training and trapped in a cycle of low pay or no pay. Even before the pandemic hit, a huge swathe of the labour market was dominated by insecure and precarious work paying very low wages.
Covid-19 has served to make matters much worse on this front and also triggered rising unemployment, especially among young people in relatively low-paid, low-skilled jobs. At the same time we are grappling with the challenges arising out of the impacts of Brexit, automation and the transition to a greener economy.
We have entrenched weaknesses in our skills system which puts us toward the bottom of OECD skills league tables and limits the growth of quality jobs:
The government must set an ambition for a high-skill economy, where workers are able to quickly gain both transferable and specialist skills to access new opportunities. And that vision should be matched by an efficient and effective skills system focused on access as well as outcomes.
Many more young people should be empowered to purse an apprenticeship or a higher technical qualification and enjoy the quality experience that is the norm in other countries. In the case of apprenticeships this requires a new approach by government to enforce employment and training rights, eradicate low pay, widen access, and to guarantee minimum progression to an advanced apprenticeship.
For adults the much-lauded policy answer is a “lifetime skills guarantee” that is actually more restrictive than the adult skills entitlements that were abolished around ten years ago. The new guarantee only applies to a prescribed list of level 3 qualifications and many adults are completely excluded from retraining because they have achieved this level of attainment.
TUC research shows that take-up of this “guarantee” will be further reduced by the puzzling and counter-productive decision by government to cut the grant for the Union Learning Fund. The OECD, a massive range of leading employers and many other stakeholders have hailed the ULF as one of the most effective initiatives at helping workers with few or no qualifications to progress up the skills ladder.
Much promised long-term investment in FE and lifelong learning has been pushed down the tracks to the spending review later this year. But we already know from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that spending on the National Skills Fund will only reverse one third of the reduction to the adult skills budget over the last decade. Employer investment in training has not compensated for the decline in state funding. We have witnessed falling spend over the past two decades and a sharp rise in the proportion of employers not providing any training at all in recent years.
This would involve a new right to retrain for everybody, backed up by personal lifelong learning accounts and a significant increase to the government’s adult skills budget. We should also follow the examples of other countries that have introduced rights for workers to guarantee them paid time off for education and training and access to regular skills reviews in the workplace.
Trade unions and their union learning reps have years of expertise and experience that could be drawn on to kickstart workplace initiatives along these lines. However, there is not one mention of unions in the white paper despite the OECD highlighting that England lacks the institutional partnership of employers and unions that effectively govern quality skills systems in other countries.
There is also little mention of the strategic role of Combined Authorities and the significant strategies that are under development in some parts of the country to link skills strategies with Fair Employment Charters.
Kevin Rowan. Head of Organisation, Services and Skills, TUC