A smarter skills policy for those in furlough

The announcement today of £2.5 billion from next April to fund free FE courses is welcome. But £1.5 billion is for buildings when the need is for broadband. And what about the period till then? More important is the commitment to providing a list of already available courses next month. This will be along overdue step forward if it indicates which are recognised by employers and their trade associations and professional bodies.

In my evidence to the BEIS Select Committee Enquiry, based on material in the blog on the need for joined-up, post-Covid skills partnerships, I referred to the need for “Furlough Vouchers” to help give the skills of the future to that third of the UK private sector workforce whose jobs and careers have gone or are at risk. There is a need to revisit that proposal now that the Chancellor has replaced the previous programme. Demand for many skills previously in shortage has fallen. New shortages have emerged. And broadband access determines who can do what jobs from home.

Lessons from around the world

Tech UK recently organised a most informative webinar on how the changes in demand and supply are being addressed around the world. The contribution from India on how the Nasscom Future Skills Initiative has been moved on-line and expedited for a Post-Covid world was particularly interesting. A key point was that national initiatives set a baseline but will not meet the needs of employers or individuals unless complemented by employer-driven local and sector-by-sector partnerships.

Singapore has long been the model for a smart city skills partnership. It has half the population of London, no Universities in the Top 20  (London has Imperial and UCL, the University of Singapore ranks 25th) and comes four places below London in the most recent world ranking of Financial centres. But, as a City State, it has been able to adopt skills policies that put London, let alone the rest of the UK, to shame.

Northern Ireland, competing directly with the Irish Republic for inward investment,  has the nearest the UK has to a joined up local Skills Partnership.  Meanwhile Finland, population akin to Scotland or Yorkshire, is the only EU Nation with a mature public – private partnership approach to industrial strategy. Some years ago, Finland gave a priority to Smart (AI) Skills akin to our priority for Basic Digital Skills.  Their basic course in the principles of AI has now been used by over 1% of the population.  The subsequent spread of higher level AI skills has also led to a transformation in the usability of Finnish on-line systems by those who would be among the digitally excluded in the UK.

The Singapore model for Smart City and County Skills Partnerships

Before Covid the Confucian Establishment that runs Singapore already understood that the half-life of all jobs, not just digital, was down to about five years. It had to provide lifelong learning for its citizens. In 2015 it introduced skills credits to encourage them to use its Future Learn programmes. These now include 25,000 on-line modules, 6,000 targeted on strategic skills. This year all citizens are to receive a $500 dollar top-up. Those aged 40 – 60 will receive a further $500 for update and conversion courses. The programme is akin to the UK Individual Learning Accounts announced in the 1999 budget. That was, however, brought into disrepute by the failure to include even the most elementary safeguards against systematic fraud by unchecked training providers. The difference between the UK then and Singapore now is quality control and accreditation.

As part of its response to Covid, Singapore has announced support for 100,000 trainees (3% of the population) under its Jobs United Programme. This is fronted by an easy to use portal. The cost of delivery, including subsidies of up to 70% for professional conversion programmes , is shared via partnerships with consultancies (like Deloitte) and tech multi-nationals. There will be an Amazon “University”. Google has committed to train 3,000, 100 for itself, 500 for its partners 2,400 for its customers.

What should the UK learn from its own past experience and that of others around the world?  

  • A national programme will not work. We need a national framework for local pr ogrammes.
  • One size does not fit all. The pace of change has accelerated. We are no longer able to measure which skills are in current shortage, let alone predict future demand.
  • There is little confidence in the ability of the Departments, Agencies and Regulators to produce effective programmes to get millions back to work, with the skills they will need.
  • We have a plague of employment fraud targeted at those in lockdown trying to find new jobs and/or obtain the necessary qualifications for those on offer.
  • Few nations with populations larger than Yorkshire even attempt to run centralised planning, control and accreditation systems akin to ours.
  • Before lockdown the UK’s education and skills planning, accreditation and funding mechanisms had already demonstrated that they could not handle the pace of change. Their public and political credibility remained, however, more or less intact until August. They were then subject to very public humiliation.
  • The complexity of mutually exclusive skills and support programmes from different departments and agencies had already led to confusion and poor take-up among both employers and those seeking new skills or jobs.
  • Programmes that cannot be understood by the target audiences, compete or clash with other support programme and/or fail to meet to local needs, rarely deliver positive results.
  • There is a need for well-publicised and authoritative means of checking the reputation of both potential skills providers and the qualifications claimed by candidates.

The way forward therefore has to be based on credible cross-departmental co-operation to support and facilitate the growth of local, regional and national partnerships of employers and education/training providers which will support programmes that address identified market needs based on current labour market intelligence, using skills definitions based on real jobs.

The objective should be to enable every would-be UK Smart City or County to at least match Singapore in the quality and relevance of its programmes within a national framework for inter-operability, quality control and value for money (including fraud prevention!).

Some of the UK’s would-be smart cities and counties are exploring such partnerships. Other have the potential to do so.

  • London (for example) could use the London Grid for Learning (a community interest company “owned” collectively by the London Boroughs) to host a “local” portal.
  • JISC/Janet (which provides high speed, high resilience, secure backhaul to Universities, Colleges, Science Parks and the local Grids for learning) could provide inter-operability for similar national and local portals across the UK (no wrong point of entry).

But this would be “putting lipstick on the face of a pig” unless accompanied by action to make sense of the programmes behind the front end and reduce the risk of those seeking to use them being misled and/or actively defrauded.

A national framework for skills vouchers could provide the necessary catalyst.    

The suggestion is for Government funding to pump-prime a programme of vouchers for employers to issue to all employees, not just those in furlough, although the latter might receive more funding from government. These could be spent with reputable training providers, nominated by employers, professional bodies and trade associations, on agreed short courses.

They should be targeted to provide skills known to be in short supply (current market intelligence) or future need (e.g. based on known plans for construction, broadband/5G roll-out etc.) and  focused on specific skills and industries, local as well as national.

They would be additional to current support and training programmes (£1,000 per Traineeship, Kickstart is for those aged 16 – 24, incentives for apprenticeships according to age and the Essential Digital Skills entitlement ) and would not affect entitlement to the latter.

The initial register of providers with whom they can be used would be a mix of those accredited nationally for current programmes, including by professional bodies and trade associations, plus those with whom LEPs and Local Authorities already have arrangements. The criteria for additions (and deletions) would be agreed with relevant employer’s groups.

Public sector suppliers (including those for infrastructure, economic regeneration and/or supply chain resilience) should be “encouraged” to participate by the use of UK Social Values Legislation to reward those who recruit, train and source locally.

The most important single action is, however, to enable pupils, students, workers, employers, providers and their advisors to make sense of what is on offer. The front-end to the furlough programme should therefore package and link to all other current and proposed education, training and support programmes in ways that make sense to the target audiences. Those which compete, conflict or cannot be understood should be culled.

To help overcome social and geographic digital divides, the front-end should be designed to  enable seamless, resilient and secure on-line access to education, training and careers materials, learner records and advice from schools, college, universities, libraries and other community learning centres across the Joint Academic Network, the Grids for Learning and other secure, resilient networks.



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