From education to employment

Productivity Plan has too narrow a focus

David Hughes is chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE)

The Government’s Productivity Plan includes some important ideas, but places too narrow a focus on young people and qualifications. Whist supporting young people is obviously critical, the Productivity Plan misses the opportunity and ignores the need to promote a universal culture of lifelong learning that fosters the skills and talents of the entire UK workforce.

A truly bold vision would have been to balance the focus between young people entering the labour market and those already in it. Only then would we be able to tackle the stagnant levels of productivity.

Some of the Plan was bold. The new Apprenticeship Levy, for instance, is an ambitious step, that looks set to halt the long term decline in employer investment in skills that has persisted for far too long. NIACE is looking forward to working with the Government to ensure that the Levy leads to better access to Apprenticeships, offer more engagement with small and medium sized employers, and provide better outcomes for apprentices who want to invest in their careers and get high quality support. Helping more people through high quality Apprenticeships will help improve productivity, but that alone will not be enough.

The Productivity Plan sets out the desire to simplify the system – an ambition which has underpinned every policy initiative in skills over the last couple of decades. The calls to move funding from a per qualification basis is something we have been calling for – as are the strengthened proposals to invite local areas to participate in the reshaping and commissioning of local provision, better meeting employers’ specific demand.

I am encouraged by the plans for further devolution to Greater Manchester and the ambition towards devolution deals to further areas across the North and Midlands. These are vital if we are to achieve the truly joined up local commissioning that’s needed on employment support and employer engagement in skills. We need a framework from the centre which encourages innovation and joining up at the local level – easy to describe, but harder to get right across every part of the country.

Our work, including the recent What Employers Want research, shows that qualifications are part of the picture. Young people need better routes into employment and the foundations for these can start earlier with better work experience, more emphasis on soft skills and attitudes; and support from employers to establish much better connections with schools and colleges.

However the Productivity Plan seems to ignore those already in work. Fiona Kendrick, CEO at Nestle set out clearly just last week how important it is for her company to support better pathways for young people as well as supporting her existing workers to progress into new roles. She is right. And most employers now recognise that the basic skills, including digital skills of all workers are holding back improvements in job design, continuous improvement approaches and learning of higher level skills. The Productivity Plan does not address these challenges enough.

With the CBI/Pearson survey setting out the higher level skills gaps and shortages, it is clear that the Productivity Plan has not gone far enough. With the Apprenticeship Levy and the switch from maintenance grants to loans for higher education, the pressure may have been eased on the Adult Skills Budget. That should give room for Ministers to push forward with some bold approaches to those on low pay, the unemployed and those with poor basic skills.

As a nation we need to get to grips with our ageing population and start to view that as an opportunity rather than a problem. Older workers have all sorts of skills, but they often lack the support and the confidence to be able to learn new skills as the workplace evolves. Technological changes and new approaches to work need confident, competent people and that requires a new approach and attitude to learning in the workplace. We look forward to working with the Government to help them get this right.

David Hughes is chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE)

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