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Compared to France, Germany and the United States, the UK has far too few highly-skilled technical workers.

The proportion of technicians in this sector in the UK is only 10.7 per cent to the European average of 27.3 per cent across all 27 countries of the EU. With a predicted demand of an extra 650,000 workers in this category over the next seven years, a step change in improving skills levels is needed.

This is why I support the ambition and many of the proposals in the Government’s skills White Paper, Skills for Growth. It sets a new overarching ambition for three-quarters of people to participate in higher education or to complete an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician level course by the age of 30. And it proposes a new target of having 35,000 advanced and higher level apprenticeships over the next two years and provides £1,000 scholarships for 1,000 apprentices to go into higher education. It makes the case for a clear vocational route from apprenticeship to technician to foundation degree and beyond.

It also sets out a more strategic approach to skills and the priority for increased funding in training places at Level 2 and 3 in digital media and technology, advanced manufacturing, engineering and construction. Importantly, it addresses the need to develop green skills and the vision required for a low-carbon economy.

The White Paper talks about creating a culture in which every employer takes responsibility for investing in their staff’s skills. The benefits of an educated, skilled workforce are blindingly obvious. Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that a one percentage point increase in the proportion of employees trained results in an increased productivity worth around £6 million to the UK economy.

So why is it that one in three employers will not or cannot train their workers?

Unions are already playing a vital role in changing this culture, with as many as 220,000 learners being supported by their union in the past year. In organisations where unions are recognised, more than a third of employees received 5 or more training days in the past year, compared to 23 per cent in non-unionised workplaces. And three in five managers report that union learning reps (ULRs) in their workplace contributed to addressing skills gaps.

The Government envisages a £100 million training pot over time, including £50 million from business. I would have liked to have seen other incentives for employees who want to upgrade their skills, for example by having tax breaks on learning and more pressure on employers to invest in skills.

It appears that the expansion of the apprenticeship scheme and other proposals in the White Paper will have to come from present funds and a "reprioritisation" of the Train to Gain grants to employers for training. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has announced a 10 per cent cut for the funding rates for apprenticeships for the over 25s, but extra funding will be needed to meet the new target.

Any White Paper this close to a general election is at risk from falling off the legislative cliff. However, David Willetts, the shadow minister for universities and skills, said there was much to welcome in it. He supported the expansion of the apprenticeship scheme, a proposal for apprentices to be awarded UCAS points and scholarships and a move to simplify the overall funding system. Mr Willetts is also on record saying that he strongly supports the work of unionlearn.

Unions are playing a vital role in improving employee skills and retraining workers for a modern economy. They can support the aspirations and ambitions outlined in Skills for Growth and they can work with whichever Government offers opportunities to raise our workers, scientists and engineers on to a higher level of learning.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation


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