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Long-term unemployment could hit 1.6 million, the highest level since 1994

Alex Stevenson is Head of English, Maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute
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Millions of adults took part in ‘lockdown learning’ but stark inequalities raise concerns about workers being left behind in post-covid economy.

A leading think tank has called for urgent action to close inequalities in adult skills, as a new national survey highlights large inequalities in access to learning and retraining.

The Adult Participation in Learning Survey – conducted annually by Learning and Work Institute – explored access to learning opportunities among over 5,000 adults, who were representative of the UK population as a whole.

The survey found that there had been high levels of participation in learning during lockdown. Over two in five (43%) – 22 million people across the UK – had taken part in some form of ‘lockdown learning’.

However, participation varied enormously across different groups, with those who could most benefit being least likely to take part;

  • Just one in five (20%) adults who left school at the first opportunity took part in lockdown learning, compared to three in five (57%) adults who stayed in education until 21;
  • Adults in lower socio economic groups (29%) were half as likely to take part in lockdown learning compared to adults in higher socio economic groups (57%);
  • Just one in three (34%) adults who were out of work took part in lockdown learning, compared to over half (52%) of those who were in employment.

Full time workers who had been furloughed were less likely to take part in learning than those who had remained in work. Four in ten (42%) full time workers who were furloughed took part in lockdown learning, compared to over half (54%) of those who were not furloughed.

The stark inequalities in access to learning are a serious concern given the unequal impact of the pandemic on the labour market. People with lower levels of qualifications, and those working in low paid or low skilled roles are more likely to have lost their jobs. While these workers are more likely to need to retrain to find work in the post-covid economy, this new data suggest that they are less likely to be accessing learning opportunities to support this.

This unequal access to lockdown learning is matched by long-standing inequalities in lifelong learning. The survey found that fewer than half (44%) of adults in lower socio-economic groups had taken part in any form of learning in the last three years, compared to three in four (74%) of those in the highest socio-economic groups. Adults who left education aged 16 or younger were less than half as likely to have accessed any form of learning in the last three years, compared to those who stayed in education until at least age 21 (36% compared to 74%).

The survey did show some positive signs for participation in learning in the future, and some indications that changes as a result of the pandemic may lead to longer-term shifts. Two in three (64%) of those who accessed online learning opportunities during lockdown said they were very likely to continue taking part in online learning in the future.

In a recent speech on adult skills, the Prime Minister announced a ‘lifelong learning guarantee’ to support people to retrain and upskill. Funded by the £3 billion national skills fund, this will provide funding for adults without an A Level equivalent qualification to access college courses.

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Fiona Aldridge Dec 2018 100x100Dr Fiona Aldridge, director of policy and research at Learning and Work Institute said;

“With the coronavirus crisis transforming our labour market and the skills that employers need, access to education and training opportunities is more important than ever. We will see more jobs created as the economy recovers, but we will need to ensure people have the opportunity to develop the skills they need to access the work that is available.

“So it is good to see that two in five adults took part in some form of lockdown learning. However, it is a real cause for concern that the very people who are most likely to need to upskill and retrain, are the least likely to be accessing learning opportunities.

“We urgently need to close these stark and long-standing inequalities in access to learning, so that nobody is left behind in the post-covid economy.”

Time to act – Tackling the looming rise in long-term unemployment, was published by Learning and Work Institute last month (31 Oct), this report explores the potential increase in long term unemployment as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

People become long-term unemployed when they have been out of work for 12 months. Long-term unemployment can scar individuals, families, and communities for years to come. It can reduce peoples’ chance of finding work in the future, and lead to health and mental health problems.

We find that long-term unemployment could hit 1.6 million in 2021-22 – a 600% increase since the start of the crisis, and the highest level since 1994.

If there is a slower recovery than anticipated by OBR, then we estimate that long-term unemployment could remain over 1 million for up to four years. 290,000 young people could become long-term unemployed.

The scale of the challenge is huge. The number of people becoming long-term unemployed in April and May 2021 could be up to three times higher than peak monthly referrals to the Work Programme introduced after the last recession. Planning to deliver support to the long-term unemployed at the right time and to the right scale is now critical. We estimate that up to £4 billion will be needed next year to provide the services to get people back into work.

We think there should be a universal offer to all long-term unemployed people across the UK, but with devolved administrations and local government delivering the support at a local level. We need to galvanise national and local partners to work together to gear up for a launch of new and extended support in Spring 2021.

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