I read the Government’s new Skills for Jobs White Paper published this week with eager anticipation. Having worked on a report for an independent commission looking into exactly this area in 2018, I was interested to see whether the important themes that report had made were reflected in the White Paper. The result? Mixed. I was really pleased to see some of the key elements represented – for example, measures to ensure that learners have access to quality skills development throughout their working lives – critical when you consider the pace of technology and, coupled with longer working lives, what that means in terms of career changes and the need to re-skill. McKinsey global research suggests that by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers (3% to 14% of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories.
I found a brief nod to the need for the need for all-age careers guidance and help to navigate the brave new world of high quality skills provision, funded in part by Learning Guarantee and government-backed finance. This is an area which, in my opinion, needs more focus. The White Paper has a strong emphasis on provision but misses the human factor of making sense of it all – something that older members of the workforce are less prepared for than school- or college-leavers. The final report of the 2018 independent commission noted that ‘There are five generations in the workforce today, and two thirds of the 2030 workforce have already left full-time education; lifelong learning is required to enable ongoing employability.’ More needs to be done to ensure that access to learning is…well…truly accessible.
I looked for – and found – new mechanisms for employers locally and regionally to be actively involved in the design of courses that developed the skills in local learners that were needed for local jobs. This is desperately needed in order to reduce the impact of the levels of skills ‘mis-match’ that are currently bedevilling our workforce. In our 2018 report we wrote ‘Every region needs some kind of employment ‘draw’ or whole regions will suffer from a working age talent drain, reducing the vibrancy of the region reduces and shifting the demographic to older age groups.’ This collaboration between training providers and employers should really help to address that need, and has the bonus of contributing to the dual challenge of place-making – working to create vibrant, multi-generational and economically viable communities.
So far, so good, but I was also looking for something more holistic. Yes, there is strong emphasis on building technical skills that employers want, and in ‘future-proofing’ technical skills provision to avoid gaps like the current one we have in STEM. There was a promised focus on English, maths and digital skills too – all self-evidently valuable. However, I could find no reference to core skills – the types of skills gaps that our 2018 report highlighted being reported by employers: decision-making, self-direction, making sense of information in data-rich environments. Lack of these skills contributes to a so-called ‘hourglass’ economy, in which highly-skilled jobs and low-skilled jobs abound, but capability in the middle tiers – management capability, development capability is thinly stretched. The implications of this are highly detrimental to the UK economy and competitiveness.
If the potential embedded in the White Paper is to be fully realised, we do need to pay more attention to how real people play a part in making it happen. The focus on provision and funding is welcome, but we must now turn our attention to the real life dynamics of how individuals navigate and benefit from the new systems. Individuals will need a recognised mechanism for recording and evidencing the skills they have built – and this will become especially important for generations who enter the workforce without the expectation of a job for life. ‘What do you want to be when you leave school?’ is no longer a valid question. Our skills development system must instead support an approach of ‘What would you like to do next?’