The election of a Government with a working majority, however modest, reduces the pressure for narrow nationalism when it comes to skills policy but we should take good note of the difference between promises and reality and the pressure from voters to bridge the gap. A recurrent theme during the election was the need to address the pressures on housing, schools, the NHS and wages from “uncontrolled immigration”. This was close coupled to pressures to better educate and train British workers rather than import supposedly skilled staff from overseas, whether from Eastern Europe or Asia. The Prime Minister began his post election speeches and letter of thanks to supporters with the promise of 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. In the Queen’s Speech the Government adopted the Labour pledge to make it an offence for businesses and recruitment agencies to hire from abroad without advertising in the UK and announced plans for higher visa charges for supposedly skilled workers.
Those who wish to continue to be able to attract and retain world class talent, so that they can offer globally competitive services from UK-based hubs, should be looking at how to help achieve those objectives in ways that also meet their own needs to improve quality and reduce vulnerability to insider fraud and abuse. They risk yet more bureaucratic controls which will continue to fail to address the known problems, if they just bleat about cost. They should, instead, be seen to be helping improve the quality of their existing workforce and of potential local recruits, by co-operating with those seeking to improve the relevance of our fragmented and sclerotic (albeit with pockets of excellence) vocational education and training system. That co-operation should include helping to publicise, promote and expand that which helps meet their own needs.
Somewhere over 200,000 employers already take on apprentices but last year there were over ten times as many applicants as opportunities. For all its talk of future skills needs the ICT sector was in the forefront of neither demand nor supply and does not appear to feature prominently in the mainstream promotion of apprenticeships. And it is not just the private sector that appears to give preference to immigrants. Local Authorities have come under flak for taking a lead in advertising jobs on pan-EU on-line services but not making serious efforts via local newspapers and recruitment agencies. Meanwhile NHS trusts are accused of prefering to send teams to trawl the Far East for Nurses and Care Staff rather than open up routines for returners and mature entrants to be employed locally on flexible contracts.
Narrowing the issues to ICT skills, the Tech Partnership (formerly e-Skills) has some excellent programmes to encourage and support employers who take on apprentices and trainees of all ages but has limited funds to advertise and promote these. The lack of support for promotion helps avoid the need for rationing. But it is not in the best national interest, if the objective is to tackle skills shortages – not merely to be able to announce successful pilots. Meanwhile, those who bleat about ICT skills shortages and have not yet joined the Tech Partnership and started working with their peers to organise programmes to address those shortages, have only themselves to blame. Like many other players, it can only achieve what its participants resource it to achieve. So join and put up – or shut up.
Similarly, pressures from major employers to make it easier to import supposedly skilled staff are irresponsible, unless accompanied by realistic proposals to address long standing quality problems, akin to those which equally plagued the NHS and are finally beginning to attract serious publicity. The issues of fraudulent documentation with regard to those with supposed IT skills was illustrated (but subsequently well covered up) when the escort failed to arrive to collect five illiterate, but according to their documentation highly qualified, systems analysts at Heathrow. It should also be noted that a large proportion of the rising tide of e-Crime, including impersonation can be linked directly to the sale of personal information from overseas call centres and information handling operations (many in locations with no computer misuse or data protection legislation, to back up outsourcing contracts with security and privacy clauses worth the paper they are not printed on).
However, not all supposed abuses are evidence of malpractice.
The claim that the system is failing and being abused because barely 25% of apprenticeships go to those aged under 19, even though they make up half of all applicants and that those aged over 25 fill 37% of programmes could be seen as evidence that enlightened employers are using higher level apprenticeships to address the backlog of skills among their current workforce. The Tech Partnership Programmes to meet half the cost of modular training for existing employees are an example of one of the best of such programmes. Another welcome development is the way that some recruitment agencies are exploring commercially viable ways of providing mature and well motivated staff with the skills in current demand from their clients and/or helping clients provide cross-training for users with the aptitudes, attitudes and experience required to avoid relying on outsiders for major projects or those information security roles that need individuals of known provenance and loyalty.
Finally we should remember that “freedom of movement” within the EU is freedom to take up a job offer, not to live off a more favourable benefits regime while looking for work. The growing groundswell against immigration implies that the UK public sector will soon give priority to taking on trainees from the local unemployed or to reskilling existing employees rather than advertising for skilled staff in other member states. There is no need for treaty change, only a need to use the Social Values Act (which embeds up-to-date EU thinking on “intelligent procurement” to ensure that this is actively taken into account when drawing up and adjudicating invitations to tender.
The industry response to such pressures will separate those who wish to maintain global career paths from those who merely wish to import cheaper contractors.
I therefore much prefer the slogans “Help train British workers for Global Jobs” or “Help make Britain the Training Hub for the Digital World” to “Train English Workers for English Jobs”. I fear , however,that unless we are serious about the former, we will get the latter.
I am particularly concerned about the way the UK funding councils hamstring those in receipt of their funds, mandating outdated business models based on the development of competing qualifications and materials from which royalties can be recouped. We need, instead, to encourage them to participate in the various global consortia which are transforming the acquisition of digital learning and skills at all levels, from University organised MOOCs (plus high-added value residential modules) to Supplier Funded Virtual Academies (and their local delivery partners) and cross-cutting Corporate Virtual Universities (plus networks of local workplace and/or “open” learning centres).
I also very concerned over the provision of digital careers advice. Most is at best misleading and at worst counter-productive: driving away those we need while attracting those for whom we have limited need. Hence the reason “The IT Crowd” live in the basement.
I could bore for Britain on IT Skills issues but the core question is, perhaps, not “How do we break out of Groundhog Day?” but “Who really wants to break out of Groundhog Day?”.