Progress with resetting UK Skills and Employment Agendas for a decade of Accelerating Change.

On 23rd February I chaired a review of the CPF Skills and Employment National Discussion Group. None of the activities agreed was partisan. This article is to summarize them for those who would like to help move from words to action.

The next objective is to report (by the end of March) on that which can be commenced without the need for new legislation/regulation and to agree plans to launch studies in May on that which may require legislation and/or policy change. The latter studies will be tasked to produce interim results for forwarding via the Conservative Policy Forum to relevant ministers (e.g. DfE, DCMS, DWP, Home Office and DLU) and Number 10, by the end of June. The aim is to then to present and discuss a selection at the Party Conference in Birmingham in October.

The review had seven themes. 

  • Making sense of what is already under way or planned.
  • Enabling individuals to “prove” their right to work and/or skills.
  • Levelling up access to skills and jobs: including across age and geography.
  • The role of Universities as life-long learning, skills and employment hubs.
  • Finding points of leverage and catalysts for cross-cutting co-operation: e.g. the intersection of cyber and financial services.
  • Turning the need to reform IR 35 from a problem into an opportunity.
  • Ensuring that UK education and training are globally competitive.
  1. Making sense of what is already under way or planned

How do we make sense of what is already happening to enable employers to decide which initiatives to support, and inform ministers accordingly?

This includes linking welfare to work programs to technical/professional career pathways via both sector (e.g. finance, construction, hospitality and health) and cross cutting streams (e.g. cyber, digital and green).

The problem is to harness the level of interest, particularly in turning the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible training levy and thus improving take-up, given the time and resources available.

Current plans include focus groups to test surveys of how best to meet the needs of different types of employer (multi-nationals, SMEs etc.) looking at similar issues in different sectors: e.g. Financial Services, Construction and Hospitality. Most flag “digital skills” as a priority but definitions can be very different. There is at least one attempt to use AI to cross reference taxonomies. Cyber needs similar unravelling.

The plans are expected to come to fruition in April and involve co-operation between Founders4Schools and the Positive Transformation Group to recruit employers interested in working together nationally and locally to remove the practical barriers to employer engagement and produce guidance to help employers locate suitable access channels.  It was agreed to help look at how to organize discussion on cyberskills (including co-operation with the Cybersecurity Council) after the event on March 10 to introduce the Cyber Security Council to City Audiences on March 10th .

There is a similar situation with regard to Green Skills. The City & Guilds strategy for handling these includes repurposing existing qualifications and programmes. At least one global employer is looking at how to the supply of high-tech skills to deliver the follow up to COP 26.

It was hoped that the new British Computer Society Computing at School portal will provide a catalyst for looking at how to bring players together to make it easier to engage from different sectors with the many initiatives regarding STEM and Coding Skills. Other key players include the Royal Academy of Engineering as well as the various professional bodies and trade associations.

2. Enabling individuals to “prove” their right to work and/or skills

How do we better enable individuals to “prove” their skills/right-to-work to employers and employers to check them?

Home Office has extended the deadline for the new on-line Right to Work processes from 6th April to 1st October. The focus has therefore switched from getting the new processes working for those with current UK or Irish Passports to providing cheap, easy and accessible (as well as secure and reliable) ways of handling the 20% of UK resident (more in rural and coastal areas) who do not have a passport. The CSTF – BHI event on the 22nd indicated both the challenge and the opportunity and a meeting report is being produced. It should be practical to organize major policy exercises, including on the “right to practice” in regulated professions, for high profile launch in May.

Meanwhile the IMS Global committee on the Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR) 2.0 is working on a new standard. Given the involvement of so many large players this should help progress data interoperability.

Given the scale of the opportunity/problem it was agreed to focus on working with the Better Hiring Institute on or more “use cases” with regulated sectors, e.g. Health and Social Care. Other possibilities include Construction and the intersection of Financial Services and Cyber. The choice will depend on employer interest and the ease of working with relevant trade associations, training providers and regulators.

3. Levelling up access to skills and jobs: including across age and geography

How do we level up the whole country (urban, suburban and rural) so that everyone can access lifelong learning and training (young and old), using community spaces such as village schools and village and community halls to achieve this?

This has been split between a short-term exercise to bring together guidance on how to join up and use existing programs (e.g. Broadband Vouchers and other support/access schemes) and a  long-term exercise to bring players together nationally across all boundaries for more coherent discussion.

We have been offered one local case study on what has been achieved and what is still causing problems (e.g. where local authorities have outsourced critical functions to contractors who have no motivation/authority to be helpful even when contacted by the DCMS barrier busting team). We will be looking for more with a view to assembling a proposal to the Department of Levelling Up to fund the provision of joined-up guidance, in co-operation with DEFRA and DfE as well as DCMS. .

Country Land and Business is working with DCMS on proposal for a National Connectivity Association to bring all sides together (including OFCOM, Fixed line Providers, Network Operators, Infrastructure Providers, Professional Bodies and Land and Property Owners) because current groups (e.g. Broadband Stakeholders, UKFCF) bring together only subsets. This should also include business users (all sizes and sectors, including public) and investors (all types) looking for lower cost/risk utility/leasehold returns. This proposal is should be ready to covered in the Mid-May launch.

4. The role of Universities as life-long learning, skills and employment hubs

What is the role of Universities as local, regional, global lifelong learning/training/skills hubs?

It is apparent that many Universities are looking at their future roles, either singly or in groups. And there is no sign of any collective consensus emerging.

The plan is to assemble a group of those with strategic responsibility (including for Business and Civic engagement) in universities interested in exploring co-operation in this area to discuss how they set their priorities and secure the support, engagement and commitment of their colleagues. It is hoped that this will lead to practical co-operations with groups of employers in specific areas plus a policy paper on the role (if any) of Government as part of Phase 2, There is also potential for a major event at the next Party Conference in Birmingham.

5. Finding points of leverage and catalysts for cross-cutting co-operation: e.g. the intersection of cyber and financial services

Use of the City University/Cybersecurity Council event on March 10th as catalyst for a cross-cutting pilot across 1) and 4) above 

The event on March 10th to introduce the Cyber-Security Council to the City Of London was originally planned as an all-day physical event, hosted by City, University of London to also cover the role of the University as a hub/host for mainstream careers and skills activities in co-operation with Central London Forward (the consortium of the London Local Authorities), including outreach activities in partnership with the other London Universities and Colleges (Theme 4).  It is now on-line, offering national/global reach. Participants in the review meeting from some of main professional bodies and trade associations agreed to work together on follow up actions to ensure that UK cyber skills policy does indeed meet the both he global and local needs of employers, large and small, including making it easier to identify and support program that meet those needs (Theme 1). A senior manager from a globally regulated financial services employer who was at the review meeting agreed to help provide the “business” perspective that is too often missing in cyber skills discussions.

6. Turning the need to reform IR 35 from a problem into an opportunity

How do we turn the current problems with IR35 from an attempt to defend the past into an incremental programme to build for the future? 

That will entail putting IR35 into into context and use the opportunity to open up discussion on employment taxation as a while.

 IR35 now catches over 4 million workers and may have been a bigger factor than Covid in causing many (e.g. HGV Drivers, IT Professionals and those family care costs) to drop out of the labour market because their marginal earnings (net of tax and/or unclaimable family and child care costs) over and above those available from part-time home-based flexible working are no longer worthwhile. There is a similar situation in the NHS, albeit caused by pension rules, with GPs and Consultants facing marginal tax rates of over 100% unless they retire and stop working within the NHS.

HMRC claims the current situation is a success but it has driven up the cost of IT contractors by 30 -40%, reduced flexibility and had major impact on public sector IT programs, including on quality control:  because of the reduced availability of independent UK-based systems auditors.

The main need is to get solid statistical, as opposed to anecdotal data, on the impact to support articles for the many journalists interested in covering the issues because they are themselves affected.  The intention is work with the Better Hiring Institute and Recruitment Industry for data to put IR35 into the context of “the missing 500,000” and promoting/enforcing good practice in the organization of umbrella/support companies/partnerships for freelancers.

 7. How do we ensure UK education and training are globally competitive?

The group has postponed discussion on this until after a presentation of the new British Computer Society  Computing at School portal. Hopefully that will lead to a proposal for a hackathon to produce APIs to enable easy searching/access across the main portals for education, training and careers materials.  If so, that event should, in turn, provide the catalyst for one or more events/activities to bring together those helping local and global schools “chains” (from those run by famous Public Schools, through Multi-Academy Trusts to international operations like Cognita) look at their futures and secure “buy in” from Trustees, Shareholders, Governor and Staff, let alone local Governments and Regulators.

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