26 January 2021

Meddling in the jobs market is no way to improve skills

By Fiona Bulmer

Britain’s lack of engineers, technicians and health professionals is holding the economy back. If we can train up the next generation with the right skills we can have a prosperous future with a highly productive workforce toiling away on good things like wind turbines or computer coding. At least that’s the vision set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published by the Government last week.

Yet what if it isn’t true? What if we will need fewer people with advanced skills in the future? Work by the Brookings Institution found that “better-educated, better-paid workers will be the most affected by the new AI technologies”. If the planes of the future are flown by robots, then the demand will be for more cabin crew and fewer highly skilled pilots. In the economy of the future we might need more care assistants, shelf stackers and delivery drivers.

This may or may not prove to be a plausible analysis, but the problem we have is that Government has decided that it is possible to predict exactly what skills employers will need. Instead of accepting the inherent uncertainties of a market economy, the White Paper is embarking on the favourite path of all governments of picking winners based on nothing more than speculation about how the labour market will look in five years’ time. The new Skills and Productivity Board will, like the old East German approach to tractor production, be setting targets and quotas for training and the Local Skills Improvement Plans will determine what college courses will be funded in each region.

Ministers argue that their approach will work because employers will be the ones deciding what courses are needed. They “will be put at the heart of identifying skills needs and helping to shape local provision through close working with colleges and other providers”. The trouble is that most business people are too busy running their companies to sit on committees and the ones that do will still lack the crystal ball to work out how many plumbers London will need in 2025.

It gets even harder with predicting the needs of the technology companies so beloved by government planners. The Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership surveyed digital companies in their region and were exasperated to find that, “digital industries tend to demand skills as need arises, as technological change creates too much uncertainty for them to predict future skills needs“. Yet, despite the fact that those in the sector don’t know what they need, government will end up funding courses based on the current technological trends. The inevitable result is that students will study diligently for a year, get a nice certificate at the end of it and find that the technology has moved on and their skills are obsolete.

The other problem with the whole focus of the White Paper is that it does not accept that for large numbers of jobs the best way to become good at it is to do the work alongside someone who is willing to spend a bit of time explaining it. What they do not need is a requirement to sit in a classroom for a year and get a diploma at the end of it, but the whole focus of the proposals is that more training will lead to more productive employees.

Many training courses are too long, provide poor quality teaching and are padded out with irrelevant modules that have no direct link to the skills the students need. To get a City and Guilds qualification in hairdressing you have to study five hours a day for a year, and can only get on the course if you already have a level 2 qualification which also requires a year’s study. We all want hairdressers who are not going to leave you looking frightful but does it really take two years to achieve that level of proficiency?

The apprenticeships debacle demonstrates very clearly how government intervention in training makes things worse. The Apprenticeship Levy was launched with great fanfare in 2016 with a pledge to provide three million places. It was seen as unquestionably a good thing. What was then created was a hugely complicated system which required small businesses to pay 10% of the costs of the apprentice and give the employee one day a week off for study. These turned out to be burdens small businesses could not afford.

As a result, after the levy was introduced the numbers starting an apprenticeship fell from nearly 500,000 a year to 370,000, with a particular decline in level 2 courses, the equivalent of GCSEs. At the same time there has been an increase in level 4 courses and degree apprenticeships, with even MBAs now being badged as apprenticeships. Money is being diverted away from those needing basic skills to give those who are already highly qualified opportunities to gain more qualifications

There is a real risk that the White Paper will increase barriers to entry for many careers. It will become harder to get jobs without the relevant certificates, those who are quietly competent at what they do but don’t have the required diploma will be devalued.

The White Paper is full of worthy intentions but, in a time of rapid change in the jobs market, these kinds of state directed solutions and grandiose plans cannot possibly be flexible enough to reflect the needs of young people looking to improve their lives and economic chances.

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Fiona Bulmer is chairman of governors at a London primary school.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.