Skills for the future.

Skills are still a top priority for the government, but Dick Evans questions whether the agenda is valid and asks how we can hope to solve our future skills problems.

Resources, human, time and financial, continue to be expended on developing frameworks and models to address the problems of skills shortages and gaps among people already in employment and those wishing to enter employment. Turbulent times require radical decisions and strategies. But will the current efforts resolve today’s challenges and those of the future?

Fallout

Let’s look into the crystal ball and suppose that fallout from the financial crisis is worse than we fear. One of the first budgets to be cut by an incoming government in 2010 is the funding of Train to Gain (TtG). What little money left in the public purse goes to schools not further or higher education. As unemployment rises, employers come to rely more and more for skills on the growing pool of qualified people looking for jobs and cut right back on their training budgets. Personal debt stands at record levels, so individuals refuse to invest their own money, preferring to squirrel it away in low-yield savings accounts instead.

Nor is there much comfort from the rest of the world. Qualified workers from overseas return home in droves, recognising that their own countries may have more to offer than a UK where the exchange rate between the pound and euro continues to reduce the value of remittances. The ethical question of recruiting medical and paramedical personnel from countries who educated and trained them from their own limited budgets grows more acute. International pressure increases on Britain not to save money through short-sighted cuts in its education and training budgets, but there seems to be precious little room for manoeuvre.

Agenda for recovery

The prime minister finally agrees to convene a high level all-party strategy group of politicians and experts to think the country out of its skills cul-de-sac. The group is faced with a number of key questions.

  • Are our existing strategies and models sufficiently flexible and sufficient in scope to cope with the changes brought about by global recession in the UK labour market and provide the country with all the skills required to rescue the economy?
  • Are the very complex issues associated with technological innovation and transfer being properly addressed, and how can education and training programmes keep abreast with these changes?
  • Are the current developments in skills sufficiently sensitive to the subtle dynamics associated with rapidly emerging new technologies and applications of science?
  • How should we fully appreciate and plan for the consequences of demographic changes, with an appropriate emphasis on older workers as well as young people?
  • Are we giving enough attention to the involvement by informed employers, workers and their representatives in developing a flexible model for skills agenda or are the current policies for representation mere tokenism?
  • What do we understand about global competitiveness and the challenges of market advantage that will enable us to successfully re-focus our strategies and tactics for skills on flexibility, innovation and diversification?
  • How can we shift public and private investment towards higher level skilLs, without losing sight of the task still facing us to provide a platform for people with lower level skills?
  • 2020 is fast approaching, so is there sufficient urgency about skills development and how can we inject more energy into the process?

The list of questions is by no means complete, but it is a genuine attempt to consider some of the complex interacting factors within the skills agenda that require an urgent rethink.

In the meantime, a sceptical permanent secretary has just come back from Australia, impressed with that country’s plan to grow its own timber by reviewing and reforming its vocational programmes. A memo goes to the minister with a proposal to produce large numbers of skilled workers in traditional crafts and skills associated with restoration and heritage activities, more appropriate (in this official’s view) to Britain’s future as a living museum…

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