From education to employment

Levelling Up The Skills Gap Should Mean More Than Just A Levels

Claire Bennison, head of ACCA UK



Hardly a day passes without another prediction of economic gloom resulting from the global pandemic. The picture is becoming a familiar one, with some consensual features. Most commentators agree that the UK is due for a huge spike in unemployment and that workers in the hardest hit sectors, such as hospitality and events, may have to retrain in order to acquire new skills more suited to the post-Covid world.

This has often been framed in the media as a looming crisis for 18-24-year olds, the age group predicted to be worse affected by the calamitous times ahead.

The government has announced some policy initiatives seeking to address this impending crisis for the UK, most notably Prime Minister Boris Johnson launching his Lifetime Skills Guarantee, promising to ‘transform the training and skills system’ to help the country build back better.

As part of this fanfare, they have found themselves speaking some traditionally unfamiliar language for Conservatives. The PM’s press release promised to ‘end the pointless, snooty and frankly vacuous distinction between the practical and academic’.

Elected with a promise to ‘level up’ the country and end a perceived north-south divide, the prime minister is determined to focus on equalising inequalities in access to funding for level 3 or A level standard courses and to make that as straightforward as gaining funding for a degree.

But will the government’s headline policies actually deliver the increased ‘practical skills’ training to produce more qualified technical workers for the sectors he mentions – including construction, care, cyber, engineering?

At ACCA, we are in the training and skills business. We welcome the opening of a range of skills funding routes to prepare workers for a harsh post-pandemic jobs market, but we think it needs to start by January 2021.

We believe the Lifetime Skills Guarantee risks missing a huge opportunity to level up skills across the board, not just for those without A levels.

We recognise the clear need to support those without Level 3 (A level equivalent) qualifications, but the impact of Covid-19 on the UK jobs market means that many more outside of this category will also need to retrain to access new careers. All ‘at risk’ sectors should be included in the scope and be able to access training for a new career, including people who have qualifications but need to reskill to move sector.

The government has mentioned various sectors where it says trained workers are much needed, but how are displaced workers from retail or hospitality to judge which skills they have and which way to turn?

The government’s diagnostic tool is no substitute for real, considered careers advice. And some people may need to improve gateway skills, like literacy and numeracy, before they can access Further Education courses.

There is now scope for a more ambitious long-term lifelong skills plan that will nurture the modern, digital and technical skills for all needing to retrain to access and upskill jobs in resilient sectors and disciplines. And let’s not forget the professional skills needed as well, including resilience, creativity and emotional intelligence.

If the government is serious about the levelling up agenda and building practical skills that employers value, then it needs a more integrated skills plan for devolved authorities that links local business networks with professional bodies and trade bodies, education and learning providers, that will help them to develop and retain their talent.

This should include access to Continued Professional Development courses to ensure workers are not ‘left behind’ by a lack of broader access to modern skills and are actively managing their learning.

Our members must complete CPD annually and we offer a wide range of courses including crisis business management and financial forecasting, for instance, which could hardly be more relevant to these turbulent times. Other important areas for focus should include the government’s much-mentioned cyber, offering training in online security, data privacy, data analytics and digital financial management, which are all areas where the financial services industry is seeing rapid changes and evolution, requiring reskilling.

This is a pivotal moment for government to reshape the economy we’ll need after the global pandemic and to boost careers training and upskilling across the board in environmental, digital, ethical and technical professional disciplines.

Part of the picture is made up of apprenticeships and the new T-levels. We welcome the government’s additional funding for SMEs to take on apprenticeships, but without additional measures to support these employers in creating more jobs, new starts are unlikely to rise.

Despite the chancellor’s recent announcement of the £2,000 bonus and lifting of the non-levy cap on the number of apprentices, many non-levy payers have already made the decision to defer recruitment into the new year.

For many SMEs the one-time payment does not go far enough to incentivise new recruitment currently. SMEs require assurances of continued support against long-term liabilities, such as subsidised wages for new starts, and a focus on Level 4+ (degree) apprenticeships that can create high-value professional jobs.

Additionally, the government’s focus on retraining for ‘essential trades’ potentially pigeonholes a generation of workers while ignoring the spectrum of services sectors that can provide additional secure, resilient jobs in the face of further Covid lockdowns impacting jobs. 

There will be some people who are more suited to a professional career, which may have a higher earning potential. Professional services careers have proved particularly resilient throughout the pandemic and accountancy, in particular, supports other sectors that are facing cashflow or financing issues (or even wanting to get financial affairs in order to agree an acquisition/ exit which is preferable to liquidations in terms of saving jobs).

The government is also promising to expand access to digital skills boot camps. So far these have been used predominantly to train for STEM careers – coding and IT technicians. This is being broadened to include cyber but when we look at other sectors and the tech advancements that could support them there’s a huge productivity gain to be unlocked.

For accountancy that’s additional training on how to work with new software packages or to comply with new government reporting (i.e using software to track audit data/ reports or MTD). As education secretary Gavin Williamson said in the House of Commons earlier this month there are ‘those who find that their jobs no longer exist because technology has redefined industries overnight’. These people also need to be supported.

The government is making steps in the right direction, but it risks missing a defining opportunity to reset our skills and our future careers if it draws the scope of its plans too narrowly.

By Claire Bennison, head of ACCA UK

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