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Levelling Up is unsustainable without a solid skills foundation

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO, City & Guilds

The Government’s latest whitepaper has been a long time in the making and it could play a crucial role in shaping Westminster’s strategy for the nation’s future.

While analysis of the whitepaper will be jostling for column inches alongside other major news stories, both domestic and international, we must not underestimate its importance – the strategy outlined by the government will have wide reaching consequences and an impact lasting decades.

As such, it is vital that this strategy is built on a solid foundation.

There is much in the whitepaper which we should welcome and celebrate.

The government acknowledges the vital role education is going to play in helping Britain adjust to a future outside the European Union and to rebuild our economy as the pandemic wanes.

However, many of the more ambitious plans laid out by the government will be extremely difficult to achieve without a genuine long-term commitment to empowering people not only to learn skills while in full time education, but to develop and adapt their skillset throughout their working lives.

The opportunity to develop and refine skills throughout our working lives is essential

The emphasis the white paper places on schools and specialist sixth forms neglects the reality that for those entering the workforce today, the skills they have learned will almost certainly be out of date in 50 years’ time when they are due to retire.

It will be essential to ensure that these people, and those currently in the workforce, are given the opportunity to develop and refine their skills throughout their working lives.

Great Jobs report

Our own City & Guilds Great Jobs research report has revealed stark challenges the country faces filling vacancies in essential industries, the proper functioning of which will be vital if the government is to meet its ambitious levelling-up targets.

The research, based on an Opinium survey of 10,000 working age people in the UK and economic analysis from labour market economists Emsi Burning Glass UK – found that, on average, only a quarter (25%) of the UK’s talent pool are interested in key worker jobs.

Among the industries facing a severe shortage of talent are social care, healthcare and food production, with the research showing that just 25%, 26% and 22% of young people would be interested in working in those sectors respectively.

Traditionally low paying sectors are vital to the running of the country

When asked why jobs in these sectors were unattractive, survey respondents named low pay as a significant factor. Given that the government white paper specifically cites increasing pay across all areas of the UK as a key goal of their levelling up strategy it will be essential to reconcile the aim to see people become better off financially with the fact that jobs in traditionally low paying sectors are vital to the running of the country.

Notably, the research also found that a lack of relevant skills, experience or qualifications were also key reasons putting people off working in some of the most essential jobs to our economy.

While the new white paper does place an emphasis on seeing an additional 200,000 people in England completing ‘high quality skills training’ per year, it does not lay out a clear strategy to ensure that this training will be available to people of all ages and social and economic backgrounds.

If the skills shortage is to be addressed successfully then training will obviously form an essential part of the solution. Ensuring that these training opportunities are not only available to all, but that people from all parts of our society are actively encouraged and engaged with to take advantage of them, will be vital.

The government has laid out ambitious and laudable targets in its white paper.

However, these will ultimately be impossible to achieve if due attention is not given to the huge skill shortage across some of the country’s most vital industries.

Any plan for levelling up must be built on a solid foundation of essential, keystone industries staffed with individuals with the appropriate training, decent levels of pay and the potential to develop their careers further.

Achieving this must be a priority if levelling up across wider society is to be achieved, along with adding respect and pride into these essential roles.

Kirstie Donnelly, MBE, CEO of City & Guilds

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