From education to employment

Pandemic has widened jobs and skills inequalities, putting ‘levelling up’ at risk

Stephen Evans

New @LearnWorkUK research: Pandemic has widened jobs and skills inequalities, putting ‘levelling up’ at risk launched on the #LockdownAnniversary 

The coronavirus pandemic has worsened inequalities in work and incomes, hitting groups including young people, single parents, and people from BAME backgrounds hardest, according to a new report. 

The research “Disconnected? Exploring the digital skills gap“, published by leading employment and skills think tank Learning and Work Institute to mark the anniversary of the first lockdown – lays bare the unequal effects of the pandemic. Worryingly for the Government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits has risen three times faster in areas with the highest pre-crisis unemployment than in lower-unemployment areas. Areas that have higher BAME populations have seen claimant rates rise more than three times faster than areas with lower BAME populations, and two times the national average. 

Young people account for one half of the falls in employment, despite accounting for only 12% of total employment. Single parents and low paid workers are among those who have faced falls in their incomes and so face challenges to get by too. For example, single parents saw their working hours fall by 26%, more than other groups, and were more likely to say it was difficult to manage financially during the pandemic. They are more likely to be affected by the planned end to the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift in September. 

Overall, unemployment is expected to be almost one million higher by late 2021 compared to before the pandemic. However, a further 2.5 million people could have lost their jobs without the furlough scheme preventing employment dropping in line with economic output. Nonetheless, long-term unemployment, particularly damaging to people’s future job and earnings prospects, is already up by 25% in the last year and likely to rise sharply during 2021.  

With the successful rollout of the vaccine programme, the Government needs to focus on recovery from the impacts of the pandemic and building a better and more inclusive economy for the future, not simply a return to ‘business as usual’. This means fixing the structural economic weakness that pre-dates the pandemic, and harnessing shifts like the transition to net zero and increased remote working and online shopping.

Less than half of British employers believe students are leaving full-time education with the advanced digital skills needed to enter the workplace

Digital skills will have a crucial role to play in the UK’s economy beyond the pandemic, helping to drive growth, productivity and innovation across the rest of the economy whilst building on the UK’s status as a world-leader in digital tech.  

This research looks at the future of digital skills, based on new large scale surveys of both employers and young people. 

The report finds that the vast majority of employers require workers to have basic digital skills, and that an increasing number of employers require more advance skills too. However, many employers are facing skills gaps which are holding back innovation, productivity and growth.  

Whilst young people seem to recognise just how crucial digital skills will be for them to succeed in the labour market, participation in digital skills training at school, in further education and in apprenticeships has declined. There are also stark gender inequalities when it comes to both ICT training and employment in the digital sector. 

Ahead of the launch a new UK digital strategy, we need to see a step change in ambition – from the government, from employers and from providers – in order to meet future digital skills need. Helping all young people to develop the digital skills they need will be crucial both for driving the UK economy and for ensuring that young people can thrive in the labour market of the future.  

The new research identifies five priorities for the Government as the economy reopens:

  1. Bring back furlough and other support if a resurgence in the virus means further restrictions are required.
  2. Introduce a Youth Guarantee of a job, apprenticeship or training offer for all young people. This should include the 500,000 16-18 year olds leaving full-time education in summer 2021, as well as those already out of work.
  3. Make the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift permanent. Ending this in September would mean cutting the incomes of the poorest 10% of households by 5%.
  4. Use expanded employment support, like new Work Coaches and the Restart scheme, to help those who were out of work before the pandemic, rather than cutting this back to save money if unemployment peaks lower than previously expected.
  5. Renew the focus on good work and progression, so people have jobs which give them security and opportunities to get on. That includes harnessing the potential of the transition to a net zero economy to create green jobs.

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:

“Unemployment has increased significantly during the pandemic despite support like the furlough scheme limiting the damage, with groups such as young people disproportionately affected. We need to avoid this damage affecting us for years to come.

“As the economy reopens, the Government should introduce a Youth Guarantee so all young people are in education or work, make the Universal Credit uplift permanent, and harness the potential of green growth. Our aim should be recovery from the pandemic and building the economy and society we want.”

Agata Nowakowska 100x100Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President EMEA at Skillsoft:

“Despite a major drive to encourage younger students to pursue STEM subjects, the latest research from the Learning & World Institute highlights that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. Unfortunately, today’s figures suggest a more long-term impact on the digital education of young people.

“Businesses are already struggling to find enough talent to close the digital skills gap and students will soon be entering one of the most competitive job markets in recent memory. Given STEM roles are predicted to double by 2028, the UK’s economic future lies in closing this skills gap; its crucial schools are equipping pupils with the skills they will need to be successful in the modern, digital workplace.”

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