From education to employment

National Apprenticeship Week: Balance local talent and national skills policies

Nichola Hay

This article discusses the importance of a national skills strategy in the UK, focusing on regional needs, flexibility in policies, and the role of local authorities and metro mayors in addressing skills shortages.

In the UK there are 10 million people who are digitally excluded and lacking basic skills, in a post-pandemic world where our ways of working and living have changed, this has a huge impact on the economy. Last year, it was reported that the UK was seriously underperforming in skills development compared to its international counterparts and that skills and labour shortages are impacting employers in virtually all sectors of the economy.

The Government has introduced a variety of policies, including the £34 million boost for Skills Bootcamps in last year’s budget, to support skills development. However, the ongoing challenge for this government and the future government is making sure these skills policies deliver on both a national and local level.

Focusing on regional skills

In order to succeed, it is vital any national skills policy supports regional skills development and acknowledges the different industry specialisms across the regions of the UK. These sector-specific hubs are growing across many regions and capitalising on their booming sectors, including  manufacturing specialists in the midlands, aerospace in the south west and Liverpool which has recently been identified as an emerging gaming sector.

If the UK is to support the growth of these industries and improve skills development within the population, the government must design and implement a national skills strategy. To ensure this strategy supports local businesses at the same time as supporting national skills development the policy must be linked to an industrial strategy, which delivers the talent pipeline and retraining/upskilling opportunities to meet regions’ individual needs.

This approach requires a coordinated effort between businesses, metro mayors, local authorities, training providers and the government to implement a comprehensive national skills strategy. Additionally, it is key that flexibility is at the centre of plans, allowing support for devolved regions but keeping both a national focus and employers and learners at the heart of policies.  

Flexibility in action

Last year, £3bn of apprenticeship funding went unused, either being handed back to the Treasury (by the Department for Education) or being left unallocated by the Treasury, following the launch of the apprenticeship levy in 2017.  

In the Liverpool City Region, Mayor Steve Rotherham was incited to take action when the underspend amounted to tens of millions of pounds. He urged big firms such as Liverpool Football Club to help fund apprenticeships at smaller businesses as part of the Young Person’s Guarantee (YPG) scheme.

This resulted in the Mayor and the Combined Authority helping to transfer £2.4m of unallocated apprenticeship levy to smaller firms, creating more than 560 new training roles to date.

Another example of a national skills policy, such as the Apprenticeship Levy, being flexed to help devolved governments support regional businesses was in the Greater London Authority. Here the Mayor’s Apprenticeship Programme has been running since 2021 and has pledged an annual sum of £1.2million to support apprenticeship projects.    

Why Metro Mayors and local authorities play a key role

More than anyone, Metro Mayors, training providers and local authorities can understand regional skills needs, and the areas which may need improvement. In support of that, last year, the Government launched its local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) initiative with the goal that training provision better meets the local needs of businesses and regional sectors. 

Despite LSIP’s being a positive step forward to tackling skills shortages across regions, more effort and a joint approach from training providers, metro mayors and local authorities is required to attract people to these opportunities. As if no one is willing to enter into the skills gaps in the first place, training providers cannot train and upskill people

Final thoughts

Without a national skills strategy which is employer and learner-led, focusing on flexibility and accessibility, the UK will continue to underperform in our skills development and miss out on considerable long-term economic growth.

This national skills strategy should use an overarching national framework which includes Learner Skills Accounts to ensure large employers can meet the local skill need as well as the national, we cannot have a system operating as a national lottery.

Additionally, implementing a national skills strategy whilst maintaining a focus on local businesses would hugely support the local SME market, which contributed £2.41 million to the UK economy in 2023. It’s time we play to our nation’s strengths and consider if Learner Skills Accounts could be the answer.

By Nichola Hay MBE, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy & Policy at BPP

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