From education to employment

Putting together the jigsaw of skills and employment

Dan Howard, Director of Learning for Work, NCFE

Skills and employment should go hand in hand. When making decisions on what steps need to be taken to boost employment, we should be looking at how this can be done in conjunction with plugging skills gaps and providing more options for learners and employers.

However, the UK distinctly lacks a joint-up approach to skills and employment, and as a result the policy that’s decided upon often doesn’t translate on the ground. Detail such as exactly who needs to be targeted falls through the cracks and there aren’t the structures in place to account for the various elements that make up the wider picture of UK employment.

Segmented skills and employment policies

Part of the cause of this is how skills and employment policies are segmented in the UK.

Skills primarily sit with the Department for Education (DfE), while employment is within the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) remit. As a result, there is sometimes a failure to identify joint issues and establish a way forward together.

Moreover, DWP puts a substantial focus on job centres, which sit at the heart of their solutions to unemployment.

Job centres do a fantastic job of prioritising finding immediate employment but have less capacity to address root causes for unemployment and therefore provide more sustainable, long-term solutions.

Although they offer information about training, training often can’t be directly accessed through these centres.

In contrast, it’s interesting to note that the Australian model has ‘Skills and Jobs Centres‘, which help those looking to enter the workforce, start training, re-skill, or for employers looking to meet their workforce needs.

For the UK, a similar two-pronged approach, which ensures people are being equipped with the essential and transferable skills they need to find fulfilling work, is needed. These skills give people options, and options provide the means to reach meaningful employment.

A first glance at recent headlines would suggest that the UK has made great strides in improving employment figures recently, indicating that we’re on the right track. And these statistics are great to see.

So, why is there an urgent need to address this problem?

These employment figures only tell half the story.

Latest stats show the UK employment rate still remains lower than before the pandemic. Alongside this, the economic inactivity rate has increased, which refers to those not actively looking for employment.

Beyond that, there are a number of other issues that have arisen, some as a result of the pandemic. For a start, the disability employment gap has undoubtedly widened during the pandemic, putting disabled people at a greater disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the latest employment statistics show an upturn in NEET young people (those not in education, employment or training). If this trend continues, it will be a cause for serious concern. The Kickstart scheme is finishing soon, which supports a lot of young people into work. What provision will act as a replacement to tackle youth unemployment?

It’s important to remember too that the data that comes out every month in terms of the labour market doesn’t tell the full story, as it fails to account for those not in the system, or the future pipeline of learners who will soon be reaching the workforce.

How then do we address the inconsistencies in skills and employment policy to tackle these ongoing challenges?

The Government’s efforts to ‘level up’ the country include commitments to a nationwide skills boost. One of the twelve key ‘Missions’ in the Levelling Up White Paper outlines a goal that “by 2030, the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK. In England, this will lead to 200,000 more people successfully completing high-quality skills training annually, driven by 80,000 more people completing courses in the lowest skilled areas.”

This refreshed approach offers an opportunity to draw together skills and employment policy and ensure that the two are working together towards the same objectives. In the same vein, this culture of collaboration needs to be mirrored across the workings of both sector and political stakeholders. In order to bridge the gap between skills and employment, the Government needs to utilise the expertise of those in the sector – from employers to awarding organisations to training providers.

It’s an exciting period in skills, as over the past few years we’ve seen an increased awareness of their importance and value. Now is the time to embed a skills-based approach to employment and education into policy, so that both employers and learners reap the full benefits.

NCFE was established over 170 years ago to tackle displacement in the labour market and today, we remain as true to that cause as ever – working with a network of collaborators to bring about change and shape smarter solutions so that every individual can ultimately fulfil their potential. 

Dan Howard, Director of Learning for Work, NCFE

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