The new found aspirations of politicians of all parties to break out of two decades of stagnation in UK per capita productivity depend on levelled up access to the digital skills of the present and future. This will not happen without a switch to employer-led, well-targeted programmes for local access. The Digital Skills APPG inquiry is an opportunity to get YOUR views heard.
Part of the stagnation relates to the failure to implement the change to an employer-led skills strategy after the success of the millennium bug busters training programme (see What Really Happened in Y2K for the context of the short-order exercise to provide 40,000 hands-on training places to industry standards). The pilots were dropped and the new sector skills councils lost control of funding and accreditation control after a cabinet reshuffle in 2002.
All-party consensus on the actions necessary to meet those aspirations is essential to ensure that the new generation of skills programmes reflect the needs of employers and provide “Training for jobs, not just jobs for trainees” – the title of an out-of-print study on this topic in the mid 1980s.
Then, as now, officials in DfE and BEIS are strongly motivated (career paths and reward structures) to preserve a century-old hierarchy of consultative committees, funding agencies and regulators, with needs analysis and quality control based on academic skills definitions and expert opinion, instead of industry-strength market research. Change to an employer-led skills agenda, and the rapid adoption across publicly funded and accredited skills providers of 21st century methods for delivering levelled up access to “learn while you earn”, will not happen until those motivations are changed and the hierarchies flattened.
The recent NAO report Developing workforce skills for a strong economy gives no indication of serious input from employers or recruiters over decade examined. It also indicates a lack of awareness of the gulf that has opened between publicly funded (college and university courses) and commercial (accumulations of accredited blended-learning micro-modules) training markets over recent decades.
Hence the importance of the “Better Connected” inquiry being organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills. The group has called for evidence by Friday 30th September on the linkage between access to digital infrastructure and digital skills and how to achieve (or exceed) Government’s ambitions in this area.
The Group wants submissions limited to 2 sides of A4, with clear sub-headings and a brief bullet summary at the top. They will accept submissions in video or other non-written formats such as audio files of no more than two minutes. Submissions should be sent to [email protected] with subject line: APPG on Digital Skills – Call for Evidence.
Below are their questions, interspersed with my thoughts on material that respondents might wish to consider before replying with their own answers.
What are the key factors constraining the Government’s ambitions of highly digitally skilled and connected Britain from being delivered by 2030?
The main problem is confusion over the scale and nature of demand and what is already being done (including by employers) to attract and harness new talent train. This has led to initiativitis instead of building on and joining up what already exists and works, using employer-led sector partnerships cross-referenced to geographic (travel to work/training) hubs. The CPF Skills and Employment National Discussion Group had this as one of its starting points . I have just blogged on a proposal to use Cyberskills careers guidance as a pilot.
What lessons have employers carried forward from the pandemic in terms of supporting their workforces in world where digital skills are more necessary to every work than ever before? What role employers and employer groups be playing in fulfilling the Digital Britain ambitions?
Before the pandemic began many large private sector employers had already transitioned their own training programmes (from first entry to updating and retraining) to a mix of hands-on and blended-learning micromodules. During lockdown the transition gathered pace. So too did integration with on-line skills recording and career development. The agreement of common standards to enable inter-operability across employers within regulated sectors, e.g. Construction, Health and Finance, via the Better Hiring Institute sector groups, has now begun.
How do the ambitions set out in the Levelling Up White Paper interact with the evolving digital skills agenda and where should government (national, local, devolved and regional) be looking to go further and faster?
As yet they do not. Nor are they linked to main digital skills taxonomies (O*Net and SFIA). The recent Review of skills taxonomies has recommended trying to reconcile O*Net and SFIA but neither relates to sector based needs. The definition of the digital skills used by plumbers (for installing computer controlled heating systems as well as handling customer paperwork) is very different to that for actuaries (to use common statistical packages). There is a need to give much better digital skills (as in data analysis to support policy formation and scrutiny) to officials and reward them better for joining up existing initiatives across departmental boundaries (DWP, DCMS, DfE, BEIS, DEFRA and Levelling Up) than for planning new intra-departmental schemes with their traditional consultation groups.
Do the lowest skilled areas have the necessary digital infrastructure needed to realise the digital skills revolution envisaged in the White Paper and vice versa?
They do not. Lack of access to broadband, lack of digital skills, lack of the current UK passport necessary to “prove” right to work in the UK all correlate strongly with higher than average constituency vote for Brexit and disillusion with Central Government (Holyrood, Whitehall or Berlaymont).
Are there sufficient education and training providers across all parts of the country to deliver the necessary digital skills to fulfil the ambitions in the White Paper?
There are too many providers and not enough individuals competent to mix and mix the wealth of packaged materials already available to meet the needs of local employers. Given that is usually easier to retrain good teachers to handle new subjects, than to turn subject experts into good teachers, the focus should be on conversion programmes for those whose subjects are no longer in demand, to enable them to manage the delivery and support of blended learning programmes covering new and emerging needs, using packaged materials and industry experts.
How will the envisaged UK National Academy improve education in digital skills among young people across the country?
There is a wide variety of academies, local, regional, national and international, promoting digital education services to UK audiences. Too little of the content is curated for accuracy, attractiveness and effectiveness in helping teachers to motivate and educate mainstream, mixed ability classes. The focus should be on helping teachers make sense on what is already on offer. This is increasingly being done via the pooling of expertise to enable Multi Academy Trusts to standardise on what works best, downloaded from their own networks or those of organisations like the National Grid for Learning (new brand name for the Community Interest Company co-owned by the London Boroughs). The latter has already done more to improve education in digital skills since the start of lockdown, by pooling procurement and expertise, than the envisaged national academy is ever likely to achieve.
Are current government programmes, including the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, sufficiently targeted to help the lowest skilled areas realise the ambitions of the White Paper?
Current programmes are not targeted to do anything more than spend money with approved suppliers. The CPF “Tell Number 10” exercise has generated a number of ideas for better targeting, including copying the Singapore approach. Levelling up the lowest skills areas requires full-fibre broadband to social housing to support home access and to local schools and community centres for safe study on the part of those who cannot do so at home. It also requires linking welfare to work programmes (including pastoral care, support and guidance) to technical/professional recruitment and career paths.
How are the needs of employers in relation to digital skills reflected in the Local Skills Improvement Plans?
There is no evidence in the guidance for LSIPs of any thought as to how the needs of local employers will be identified, let alone met. These should have local recruitment agencies and managed service providers (staffing as well as digital) at their heart, working in partnership with the Careers & Enterprise Company (with its services extended to cover carers and retaining advice).
Are the nine new Institutes of Technology sufficient in scope and support to boost higher level digital skills among adults?
Several of the Institutes have severe staffing problems: from marketing to attract students and employers, through programme delivery (particularly supervised work experience), student support and pastoral care to placement. The problems are compounded by competition for competent and experience staff leading to high rates of churn. They are unlikely to overcome without programmes to cross-train experienced staff from subjects no longer in demand and update returners.
Will the Government’s proposed In-Work Progression offer seek to address the digital skills gap among the poorest in society?
This will depend in large part on the contracts, motivation and performance measures for the DWP welfare to work contractors.
Can you provide specific example(s) of where digital inclusion has been successfully implemented?
There are a number of small successes, but most have been with specific audiences (e.g. veterans or army wives and dependents) or run by individual employers to meet their own needs (including to meet the conditions of public sector contracts using Social Values legislation to mandate local recruitment and training. Most tend to be too labour intensive (including motivation, pastoral care and/or clinical support) to be otherwise commercially sustainable or scalable.
Can you provide specific examples(s) of where digital inclusion has not been as successful, and suggestions for areas of improvement?