From education to employment

Winning the war of words isn’t enough to deliver growth

Kate Shoesmith

REC’s take on the Party Conferences for FE News

The atmosphere at the two major political party conferences this Autumn could not have been more different.  Labour were upbeat in a way we haven’t seen for years, while Conservatives felt more muted – undoubtedly not helped by the train strikes – but as we all know, there was far more going on than that.

But the political mood isn’t what interests those of us attending conference from business, education and other representative organisations. What we really want to know is what will the politicians be looking to do in the near term, and what will be their manifesto commitments as they prepare for a general election? The conferences gave us some clues on their priorities and how we can best prepare.

‘Growth’ as a priority

Truss has made ‘growth’ her priority as Prime Minister. The recent mini-Budget was branded as the growth plan as it made offers to reduce taxation and regulation. The Prime Minister went as far as to say in her conference speech that those on the other side of the political spectrum represent an “anti-growth coalition”. The emerging ideological split in her party might even put some of her own MPs into that category.

Starmer might want to counter that accusation given how he has previously said Labour’s mission is to provide economic growth. The Labour leader also used his party conference speech to set out why jobs of the future, particularly around green technologies and carbon neutral, can be engines for growth. That is something many business organisations including the REC and CBI agree with.

Talking about growth isn’t enough

The reality is talking about growth isn’t enough. We are at a tipping point in the UK labour market. When was the last time you heard someone bemoan labour and skills shortages? In our world, we hear it ALL THE TIME. Sorry for shouting – but there is good reason. Our regular Report on Jobs survey has shown that candidate availability is at its lowest level in a generation. Attracting and retaining talent has never been more difficult and it doesn’t look like it will get any easier soon. Recent analysis by the REC shows that without action to overcome shortages, it could cost the UK economy up to £39 billion per year from 2024. 

The answer to this is in our collective hands, and this was the theme of our conference fringe events with WorldSkills UK.  If we want a buoyant jobs market that is responsive to the needs of industry, we need the right infrastructure in place. This means businesses have to train their staff and engage in the education system.

There finally seems to be some political appetite for reforming the Apprenticeship Levy. Changes there would be very welcome, as those funds really could unlock training opportunities for a wider range of people, including temp workers and in doing so support the levelling up agenda mentioned by the PM in her conference speech. But businesses shouldn’t rely on the levy alone. If you ask jobseekers what they are looking for in their next employer, the culture of that organisation (does it enable progression and training, do they have an ESG strategy, are they a ‘flexible’ employer), all matter – at least as much as pay. Even during a cost of living crisis. 

What we should expect from future governments

Then, there are the things that we should expect from future governments, working with employer and education experts to get it right. We could have many calls for action here but there are three big things required. Education provision should be based on up-to-the-minute labour market information – we already provide that to government. We need affordable and available child and family care that helps people balance their caring responsibilities with working.  And if we are serious that we want to level up the country, we need reliable transport that gets us to where the jobs are and where more jobs can be created.

We just hope the politicians were listening.  

By Kate Shoesmith, REC Deputy CEO

For REC’s assessment of the mini-Budget, tune into our recent vodcast.

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