“We’re in an economic emergency”, the Chancellor declared as he unveiled his latest one-year spending review on 25th November. The message was a stark one and indeed, with an economic recession looming, and unemployment set to surge to 2.6 million people when furlough ends, we’re yet to see the full extent of the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy.
For those of us in the education and skills sector, we know the important role that upskilling and education play in economic recovery – so, all eyes and ears were on the Chancellor when the topic came up. But sadly, we were left underwhelmed. Time and time again the Government talks up the need for skills but fails to commit to anything transformative. And this time was no different – demonstrating once more that the Government still doesn’t have a long-term and sustainable plan for skills to both stem unemployment and fuel economic recovery.
Whilst re-focusing existing funding is sensible right now, the Restart programme feels outdated and lacks any detail about how we’re going to support people to retrain and reskill now. It would serve no one, least of all those trying to get back to work, to see a rehash of the unsuccessful Work Programme.
And, if it’s going to be crunch time for unemployment in just a few months’ time, can we afford to let people wait 12 months before giving them the support they need? The answer is no – we need to act now.
We are at a pivotal moment in time and we need to use this as an opportunity to make radical changes to our education and skills system to help people get back into meaningful work and ultimately, make strides towards getting our economy back on track.
Here are the four key objectives we believe the Government needs to prioritise to support the UK back into work and prioritise lifelong learning:
Give power to the regions
If we want to successfully support people back into jobs and get the economy firing on all cylinders again, we can’t apply a ‘one size fits all’ formula. We should stop looking at the UK economy as one big whole and start thinking about it as a series of smaller, regional economies. As such, we need a funding regime to match this reality that gives regional leaders genuine autonomy when it comes to how and where funding is prioritised. This will enable them to implement tailored solutions to meet local skills and employment challenges.
And as well as this, national policies need to be targeted, specific and built from the bottom up if they are to provide solutions which are fit for purpose.
Create a one-stop-skills-and-jobs-shop for employment and training
Our priority should be to match skills to jobs, and supply to demand – it’s not rocket science. In line with our ‘Act Now’ report published last month, we propose the creation of a national network of ‘Employment and Training Hubs’ within the regions most impacted by unemployment to fast track reemployment of those displaced by Covid-19. These would provide a ‘Shop Window for Skills’, making employment pathways more accessible and bring together local job seekers, employers and training opportunities.
Make careers advice the new normal
We need to ensure that careers advice and guidance are seen as important and valuable routes to finding employment. Whilst it’s important that we provide retraining opportunities in a new industry, without tailored support how will people know how to get there? Whether workers are entering the workplace for the first time or changing careers after forty years in an industry, support and advice is key.
With this in mind, there needs to be a more joined up approach between DWP and DfE to ensure that any investment in work coaches or other careers advice is matched to local market needs to deliver the right skills, at the right levels, to the right people.
Lifelong learning – not a nice to have but a new reality for everyone’s working life
Finally, we need to create an environment where lifelong learning can flourish and be appealing and accessible for all.
And to do this, we need an outside-of-the-box solution which is more robust and flexible. Not only should this include increased online opportunities – utilising existing HE and FE infrastructure – but also a programme focused on ‘taking learning to the people’ to give learners the chance to access shorter, sharper courses – and learn in a time and place that suits their own lifestyles.
There has never been a more important time for us to focus on reskilling and lifelong learning. Unlike the current ‘quick fix’ solutions in place, we need a plan with longevity to address unemployment, skills shortages and ongoing productivity issues. We need to think differently, and we need to act now.
Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO of City & Guilds Group