Elena Magrini, Researcher, Centre for Cities

#Brexit will play a central role, but closing the adult skills gap in left behind places should be key to this general election

While Brexit will play a central role in this general election, it is the deeper economic concerns that drove the ‘Leave’ vote that politicians must urgently address, one of the most important of these is the adult skills gap.

It is often said the UK is experiencing a ‘job miracle’ – high employment growth and the lowest level of unemployment since 1975.

Yet, at the same time, there is a growing concern around ‘left-behind’ places, cities and towns especially in the North of England that increasingly feel disconnected from the opportunities this ‘job miracle’ should offer.

The Gig Economy and Precarious Employment

This is true no matter how you approach the issue, look at self-employment for example.

In recent years there has been a dramatic rise in this new way of working, opening up opportunities to work more flexibly, be your own boss and turn a hobby into a job.

Yet, in Barnsley, Burnley, and other places with weaker economies, over 80 per cent of people that are self-employed rely solely on self-employment for their income, and the roles they take are most of the time lower-skilled – such as in construction, transport and personal services.

This is not the case in Cambridge, where more than 40 per cent of self-employed people are in high-skilled roles and have access to other forms of income.

Hidden Unemployment

Similarly, look at economic inactivity, being out of the labour force can be a great thing if you’ve chosen to dedicate your time to something else – for example if you are a student, or looking after family or home or you have decided to retire early. This is the case for example in Crawley, Oxford and Exeter, where over 80 per cent of people that are inactive fall within these categories.

But in Mansfield, Wakefield and Newport, almost half of the inactive have health issues, are discouraged or have other reasons for not being in the labour force.

Fourth Industrial Revolution

Looking at the future doesn’t change the picture either.

Technological changes and globalisation are bringing new opportunities in the labour market but also displacement. Yet when looking at displacement, this is concentrated in places with much weaker economies: in Sunderland, Mansfield and Wakefield, almost one in three jobs is at high risk of disappearing by 2030. In contrast, in places like London and Reading, only one in seven jobs is vulnerable.

These issues must be urgently addressed in this general election – and luckily, there is a fil rouge to solving these different challenges: the UK needs a much bigger focus on adult education and a long-term commitment to lifelong learning.

The most vulnerable should be given priority by the next Government

The focus from the manifestos must be on supporting those at the bottom end of the labour market, i.e. those with no or low-qualifications, in low-income and insecure roles. While in a changing labour market everyone will need to retrain yet it is those at the bottom end of the labour market that are more vulnerable and less likely to take up training to update their skills. They should be given priority by the next Government.

One way to support them would be to introduce a Singapore-style system, assigning a number of credits to every individual over 25 to improve their skills. Under this system, which would go to complement existing adult skills programmes, every individual without level 2 qualifications (equivalent to good GCSEs) would be assigned £300 a year for training, with the financial incentive gradually diminishing the more qualified a person is/becomes.

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Supporting people with low qualifications would cost approximately an additional £1.9 billion a year to the Government, with £4 billion for the overall system*.

Practically, this means that with just over half the money the Government is currently spending subsidising university education, adults in the UK, especially those with few or no qualifications could get a consistent support to training.

Local Insight

Local areas would take the lead in terms of the delivery of the system, to ensure it is relevant to local needs and to avoid the pitfalls previously experienced with the Individual Learning Accounts.

Initiatives such as the Skills Advisory Panels and the recently launched ‘Examine a place’ platform are great steps from the current government to give local areas a better understanding of their needs and a bigger say on what needs to be addressed and should be used to shape provision at the local level in an efficient way.

No such a strategy will be successful without a long-term, cross party leadership and commitment. With every new government, there is a tendency to scrap existing plans on skills to introduce new ones, resulting in a permanent lack of understanding of what works in this space and huge inefficiencies. This must stop.

The economic divides that have disconnected the country are of no benefits to anyone. Addressing them will mean a more prosperous UK and should be a no brainer for any party.

Elena Magrini, Researcher, Centre for Cities

*To get to this number, we assumed that every individual with no qualifications or Level 1 qualifications (approximately 6.3 million people in the UK) would get £300 for training; those with Lever 2 or other qualifications (approximately 7.1 million) would get £200 and those with Level 3 qualifications (5 million) would get £150.

We assumed people with Level 4 qualifications and more would not qualify for any support. To make the estimate we used 2018 Annual Population Survey data.

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