Getting Britons into work with the skills of the future

The issues raised during the Conservatives leadership contest and the Labour calls for national skills and productivity strategies, give context to the need to reset thinking round a new all-party consensus. Neither cutting taxes nor increasing borrowing will break the spiral of stagflation without action to increase both the productivity of the UK workforce and the proportion of the UK population in productive employment.

Past attempts to address productivity per head have failed, whichever party was in power.

The only one of the 1970s sector industry strategies to succeed had a manpower plan (building on the skills and training facilities already available), at its heart. Current attempts to inform and plan change via new expert committees to advise central government and its funding agencies are unlikely to succeed any more than those over the past 50 years.

The only digital skills initiative since the programme to put at least one micro into every school by 1982, to deliver its objectives was the Millenium Bug Buster programme. I have just found a copy of my letter to Gordon Brown in March 2002, (when the Individual Learning Accounts were being looted by fraudsters), telling him that I had been told that the report on the  Bugbusters programme had not only not been submitted to ministers (so that it could be used as a model for subsequent programmes), it had “gone astray” during a re-organisation.

We need to understand why they failed

The first main reason is that one size does not fill all regions, sectors or skills. Success requires devolving authority within flexible frameworks to the level necessary for success, while ensuring that those frameworks do not facilitate the kind of fraud that destroyed the last UK attempt to create individual learning accounts. (Singapore uses the approach very successfully).

The second is the reluctance of central government to use incentives, such as tax exemptions for child and family care or the acquisition of new skills, as opposed to central planning, direction and regulation based on “evidence” using taxonomies that are too vague for meaningful training needs analysis or course and manpower planning. Hence, for example, the many . forecasts of demand for ill-defined “digital skills”, that are of little relevance to those seeking provide individuals with the opportunity to acquire the skills to develop or use digital tools and applications, when and where needed.

The UK need is for a radical change of approach, devolving “authority” over most of the funding and planning, to employers (including trade associations and local groupings) and workers (whether as individuals or collectively via professional bodies and trades unions).

We need, however, to understand why past attempts to implement that change (from Conservative Training and Enterprise Councils through Labour Sector Skills Councils to Coalition LEPs and the current Apprenticeship structures) were never seen through.

Because were never properly implemented

Most of the ideas currently in play are similar to those that the employer-led sector skills councils (announced in Developing workforce skills: piloting a new approach ) were going to implement. But the process of transferring power from HE and FE funding councils to Sector Skills Councils was halted within hours of the Cabinet reshuffle in Spring 2002. The funding for the employer-controlled pilot sector skills council for digital (e-Skills), was announced by John Denham at 10.00 a.m. on 29th May during his keynote for a Digital Skills summit. We learned after lunch that he had been reshuffled. The funding then took over 18 months to come through. And it was mainly in the form of an ability to “bid” for consultations on programmes planned by the agencies that were supposed to have been replaced. Like the other Sector Skills councils it had been emasculated. Hence the reason for what followed as most UK employers gave up on trying to get their needs heard.

The regional pilots to test the approaches that had been announced in the 1981 pre-budget report, with tax incentives (e.g. exemptions from national insurance for those under training) for employers were quietly dropped. The results of the pilots using trades union learning representatives to help engage the existing workforce, were never publicised.

Why not?

Hence the reason that any Government skills programme designed to meet the needs of employers and students, as opposed to those of existing skills providers (from those running funding and regulatory agencies to the colleges and universities they are used to working with), will fail unless it has strong support from a well-informed opposition to “help” ministers and their officials provide the consistency of approach necessary to bring about genuine change.

This applies to the proposals that have emerged from the work of the CPF Skills and Employment National Discussion Group – particularly those that require the better targeting of existing funds today as opposed to bids for new money sometime in the future.

Our work will fail too unless we can create a new consensus

That will require beginning with scalable projects and programmes, building on what already works, on which it is relatively easy to reach agreement and which do not require “difficult decisions”, whether by politicians or by the officials who will have to implement them.  But given the competition for resources (time as well as money) at a time of deepening crisis, that also means building on “coalitions of the willing” who will contribute their own organisations time and money to achieve results that benefit themselves and their own customers and suppliers.

Hence my own focus on a proof of concept with regard to cyber security skills, broadly defined, so as to draw in resources from banks and insurance companies who will benefit most from improving customer confidence and reducing fraud, without diverting resources form those whose priority is the security of the critical national infrastructure (including the NHS)  in an age of global cyber warfare. The result is: Bridging the Cybersecurity Careers Guidance Gap

Meanwhile action to increase the proportion of the population in productive employment is rarely taken seriously by Treasury

Why is the taxation of child and family care funded by individuals and/or their employers so out of line with our overseas competitors?

Why is the taxation of attempts to acquire new skills, as opposed to those necessary to perform the current role, currently out of line?

Why has action not been taken on the nonsense pension rules which has forced so many GPs, Hospital Consultants (for example) into early retirement?

Why has no “joined up exercise” been undertaken on the net effects of IR35 – increasing the overheads on employing UK contractors by over 40%, forcing them into lower paid (and taxpaying) employment or overseas markets?

Where is the action on Levelling Up Access to Jobs by permanently removing the barriers to those without a current UK passport being able to “prove” their right to work in the UK as easily as immigrants and temporary workers from overs?