From education to employment

Investment in our sector – why I’m optimistic about 2012

Now the festive period is behind us, it’s time to start looking at the year ahead. There’s no doubt Christmas and New Year is an expensive time of year, and in this economic climate everyone will have been thinking carefully about making the most of their money. That’s what I’m currently thinking about too.

Just before the chancellor’s autumn statement in November, Nick Clegg pledged £1bn to provide subsidised work and training placements to thousands of young people. Clearly, he’s looking to make the most of his money to tackle the problem of jobless young. A quarter of a million young people will be offered work experience placements of up to eight weeks. These will be available to every unemployed 18-to 24-year-old who wants one and has been seeking work for three months or more. Meanwhile other announcements include: a £50m fund for 25,000 NEETs to get them onto an apprenticeship or into work; at least 20,000 additional incentive payments for English businesses to take on 16-to 24-year-olds in apprenticeships; and more support for young people visiting job centres.

In other news, BIS has now published its New Challenges, New Chances reform plan. Again, despite the purse strings being pulled tighter than we’ve seen for decades, there’s a need to make the most of scarce resources. Money is being prioritised on learning for young adults, with 19-to 24-year-olds able to access full funding for Foundation Learning to progress into further learning or a job. There is also cash available for those who need to improve their English and maths skills as well as the unemployed people on benefits.

At the same time, the Skills Funding Agency has published its Skills Investment Statement outlining how budgets will be spent in 2012-13. In summary, the overall FE and skills budget in 2012-13 will be £3.8bn – the same as Tesco’s 2010/11 profits coincidentally. £3bn of that will go on teaching and learning with a minimum expectation that £698m will support 19+ apprenticeships.

So it seems, although the economy is still struggling, the skills sector will be able to hold its own in 2012. The funding of our collective work for the coming twelve months has never been more vital for the country. In fact, a recent report from the Federation of Small Businesses shows small firms are struggling to find skilled staff, even though unemployment is set to rise again. About 27 per cent of small businesses found it difficult to find suitably skilled staff. There is clearly a disconnect between the needs of employers and the skills potential employees have.

The sector can complete the jigsaw: listening to the needs of employers and the sector skills councils and translating those into training to provide jobseekers with the skills employers are crying out for. This can only be done through greater government spending on the things which matter: training, supporting businesses and encouraging growth.

So, perhaps this time of year is not all about making the most of your money in the short-term. It’s about investment in the long-term; investment in the future of the economy and investment in the more than one million unemployed young people who are in danger of becoming a lost generation.

So, as we enter 2012, I am optimistic – perhaps even confident – the sector can do much to get the UK back to where it needs to be: a workforce with the skills individuals need to improve their job prospects and lives; young people who are prepared for the world of work and have the confidence to face it: and businesses which can recruit and grow with ease. Taken together this will help to foster a growing UK economy supported by thriving businesses.

Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation

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