Towards a Post Covid Skills Policy

On 16th July I introduced and chaired a Conservative Policy Forum webinar on the theme of  “How do we give the skills of the future to millions whose education has been disrupted and jobs destroyed?” This was the first of a series of events to open debate beyond the Westminster bubble, where lobbyists feed acceptable ideas into those Think Tanks currently in favour.  A full report of what was said and the questions asked is on the Conservative Policy Forum website.

I agreed to turn the material into a short paper with recommendations, for possible publication via the Conservative Science and Technology Forum. I said that I would also use the material for a personal submission (i.e. no else is to blame for recommendations they do not like) in answer to the sixth question (How can government best retain key skills and reskill and upskill the UK workforce to support the recovery and sustainable growth?) asked by the BEIS Select Committee Inquiry into Post Pandemic Economic Growth  The deadline for submissions is 1st September).

I said I would put the ideas for peer review first – hence this blog.

The paper below does not explicitly address the question of “retaining key skills”. That appears to be based on the widespread, traditional fallacy that you can “train for stock”. You can educate for the future but practical application skills atrophy if not used, even if they are still relevant. They do not have to re-learned from scratch but they will need refreshing.

That said, I would be most grateful for any feedback, especially where readers disagree.

How do we give the skills of the future to millions whose education has been disrupted and jobs destroyed?

Summary

Before lockdown our systems for planning and accrediting education and training in the UK were already unable to cope with pace of change. Lockdown has seen ten years of change in ten weeks. The majority of voters (parents, teachers and students) have discovered for themselves the potential and limitations of working and learning at home.

About half the workforce have been able to work from home. About a third is on universal credit and/or about to come out of furlough, facing an uncertain future. Three quarters of those looking for work used lockdown to try to acquire new skills. Half are willing to retrain outside working hours to acquire those needed by their employer. Policy-makers must take their needs at least as seriously.

There is a wealth of digital skills material but “free” is not sustainable. We need to unpack demand, by level, application, sector and location, using labour market intelligence and definitions that link skills to jobs, to underpin investment in delivering relevant courses and materials, when and where needed, to the standards (quality and content) needed by local employers.

There is a wealth of education, training and support programmes but, to be effective, the choice  must be intelligible to the target audiences:  employers, job-seekers, parents, students, careers advisors, schools, colleges and training providers. Programmes must also work together to help ease that path into employment for those with family responsibilities, or from dependent families in a world where full time jobs with a single employer may well have ceased to be the norm.

1) Recommendations    
  • Package and promote 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.
  • Extend and simplify the apprenticeship levy to cover all forms of employer recognised and accredited training and skills development programmes, using evolving skills definitions based on real jobs and market intelligence.
  • Use UK Social Value legislation to embed local recruitment and training into all public procurements to encourage robust supply chains, job creation, reskilling and lifelong learning and to reward good employers for doing good business.
  • Encourage and publicise seamless on-line access to education, training and careers materials and advice from schools, college and Universities across the Joint Academic Network, the Grids for Learning and other secure, resilient networks.
  • Use JANET, the Grids, broadband vouchers and the £5 billion outside-in broadband programme to enable full fibre networks to link community life-long learning hubs in every science and business park, commercial centre, school, library, community centre and village hall.
  • Use furlough/training voucher programmes, focused on specific skills and industries within local strategies, to help drive quality and repurposing, using employer-recognised providers, to develop the skills of future, not just those in immediate demand.
2) We need policies and programmes that can handle the scale and pace of change
  • Before Lockdown the pace of change with regard to the skills in demand and our ability to use technology to help assess, educate and train raw talent had already outstripped the ability of public sector policy, funding and accreditation processes to respond to the resultant challenges and opportunities.
  • Lockdown exacerbated the problem with ten years of change in three months. There is more to come. Policies to address the immediate challenge of getting back to work and restarting our education and training systems must also recognise the longer term challenges
  • The mass deployment of online learning, expert systems and artificial intelligence means that classroom education to acquire memory and logic skills is no longer of such pre-eminent value. The classroom is more a place for motivation and to acquire and practice group and social skills. Basic digital and mental disciplines (such as coding and systems thinking) change slowly, if at all, but the application skills in demand commonly change faster than publicly accredited/funded curriculum can be agreed. The consequent changes in priority and status pose an existential challenge to traditional educational hierarchies and academic structures, not just to planning and funding processes.
  • There has been a dramatic shortening (from years to months) of the time needed to assemble mass market and/or customised online learning programmes. Many now use “AI” and/or gamification to enable personalised motivation, delivery, practice and assessment. Skills which used to take months or years to master can be acquired within days or weeks by those with the necessary attitudes and aptitudes. The gulf between the delivery and quality control processes, standards and timescales of professional and commercial providers and those of academic accreditation bodies has widened.
  • There are increasing tensions between processes (from “T” levels through Apprenticeship or Degree Standards) intended to meet the needs of academic or vocational “disciplines” and the growing use of “intelligent systems” (accessing relevant bodies of knowledge) to enable digital users to the boundaries of trade or profession. New processes in response to current and emerging challenges facilitate customised skills development, bringing together pre-existing and/or shared modules from an evolving variety of sources, national and international.
  • Few in the current workforce can expect a career (let alone a job) for life. Most are stuck on a treadmill of change, alias lifelong learning, acquiring new skills for new roles every few years. The good news is that the growing availability of libraries of on-line materials enables teachers and tutors to help educate” all ages with the skills and motivations for a world of modular, flexible, technician and graduate level, lifelong “earn while you learn”. They do not “just” facilitate the acquisition of the application skills in current demand.
  • The disruptions of lockdown and loss of income from overseas students increases pressures on universities and colleges to improve teaching and pastoral care (remote as well as local) as they compete for student loans, apprentice funds and new sources of revenue from meeting the needs of alumni and others to remain employable. Those already organising on-line hubs for local, regional and global, learning, research and skills, were also able to cope better with lockdown than others.
  • Overall, lockdown greatly increased the use of on-line e-learning and training, particularly with free courses to use the on-line services of dominant players like Google and Microsoft and/or Banks and Retailers. But many training providers, reliant on charging for courses to acquire professional, technical or applications skills face ruin, despite moving them on-line. This was because many employer-funded training programmes were cancelled as staff were furloughed and budgets frozen. Free is not sustainable. Relevance, quality and value all cost. There is a need to act rapidly to preserve and expand the on-line training providers we need.
  • Policies are needed at every level (local, regional and nationals) to make it easier to embrace change to the benefit of the whole of society. Before lockdown central and local government skills policies were largely focused on equipping the young with skills for a changing future, using consultation processes that took years to agree new courses and content. Those processes  struggled as the pace of change accelerated. They have now been overwhelmed.
  • An even bigger change is the need to help those aged 25 – 45, whose jobs and careers have gone or are now at risk. Those with family responsibilities who are still in work, often in temporary work or jobs with  uncertain futures, cannot afford to leave behind their income stream or benefits entitlement. They need to be able to acquire new skills while still earning a living, however modest, and/or receiving universal credit or other benefits.
  • Then there are those in the 50 – 65 range who, with changing retirement ages, were going to need to remain in employment anyway. Many of the jobs  they wanted are no longer available. They will have to learn to work in jobs which use computers, including for collaborative working. There is a need to change focus from courses/support for silver surfers to help overcome social isolation or acquire the skills to access on-line services, towards the “essential digital skills” that will enable them to remain employable.
  1. Those looking for work appear ready to put in the effort
  • Covid changed the current job landscape and brought forward that of the future. At the time of  the UK Covid infection peak in April the volume of job adverts had fallen 50% and the number of applicants per job had risen by 40%. As technology erodes jobs we can expect more applicants for the new jobs. Enabling people to reskill themselves is critical. We are beginning to see the green shoots of recovery with new recruitment in health, telecoms, education, construction and logistics.
  • Before Covid most enquiries were from those in employment looking to see what was out there. Now 60% are from those who are unemployed. The main barriers they face are reskilling and the lack of job creation.  77% of those looking for employment used lockdown to acquire new skills but their efforts have been piecemeal, often unrelated to employers’ needs. They have commonly used courses and materials of variable quality, not needed or recognised by prospective local employers. There is a need to revisit the provision of location specific digital skills training, not just for the young, but for mid-career changes and returners so that no-one is left behind.
  • Careers advice is commonly on offer when it is least wanted (e.g. early years education), not when it is. It should be on-line, driven by labour market information based on real jobs with real employers. Relevance is essential so is inter-activity, for teachers, parents, pupils and employers.
  1. But what are the skills in current, let alone future, demand?
  • The Mantra is “Digital Skills” but there is now evidence of a year on year drop of nearly 50% in advertised roles. Nearly 2/3rd of IT professionals are worried about losing their jobs. Meanwhile specific roles in cloud, data science and AI are said to be hard to fill because of talent gaps. The situation is complicated by the impending changes to IR35. Many employers are reluctant to take on full-time staff when their own futures are uncertain. But the current IR35 situation means they are equally unable to take on independent contractors to meet immediate needs.
  • There is a need to unpack demand using evolving taxonomies based on labour market intelligence (including real employment data) that links skills to jobs, locally, regionally, nationally and globally. The use of professional frameworks like SFIA, CYBOK et al needs review. Before Covid there was little market research into the detail, let alone location, of demand and supply necessary to help organise flexible, incremental, delivery partnerships that can respond as the future emerged from the mists of uncertainty.
  • That increases the difficulty of putting the new unemployed back to work. Even where we “know” demand is already unsatisfied and will increase sharply over the next few months, we have a mix of vague high level definitions and bids to accredit/fund full-time courses for a bygone age of predictable career “ladders”. The need is to improve the supply of short course modules that enable a choice of “holds” on a career “rockface” where the routes upwards change over time.
  1. Unpacking the skills to build and maintain the Digital Infrastructure of the future as an example
  • Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, need to be trained to build and maintain the infrastructure (networks and systems) to support a smart society, from homes to cities. But who actually needs needs what skills?
  •  Post-graduate skills are needed by relatively few suppliers and consultancies for research and development. Most of the demand for graduates to become “professionals”, including to handle big data and algorithmic systems (alias artificial intelligence), is really for skilled level 3 (BTEC etc.) “technicians”. By far the biggest demand is for construction workers and installation engineers to build and connect smart networks to serve town centres, tower blocks and business parks, for digitally competent plumbers and electricians to install home systems and for health and care workers able to use automated aids to help look after the growing numbers of elderly.
  • Most of the skills in demand cross traditional trade and professional boundaries. Many can be acquired within days or weeks using on-line training materials from product and service suppliers. The issue is to organise delivery, supervise work experience and assess competence, when and where needed, within programmes that enable employers or individuals to claim against apprenticeship levy, tax rebates ND/or other schemes intended to help meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
6) The potential and limitations of technology assisted, socially distanced learning and training.
  • As lockdown began many schools, colleges, university departments and commercial providers, which already used classroom-based on-line learning and assessment, moved rapidly to make their programmes available from home. The moves included short courses, apprenticeships, graduate and post graduate degrees as well as primary, secondary and adult education.
  • The process opened up digital divides between best and average, let alone worst. They, in turn, opened up geographic and social divides, particularly between those with reliable and secure broadband plus a safe study area and those without.  The divides were further exacerbated by the closure of the home-work clubs and safe study centres (often with breakfast or supper for the most deprived), for pupils and students with no quiet space, let alone laptop or mobile, of their own.
  • Many apprentices were furloughed but carried on with their training. Those with lower qualifications (e.g. no higher than GCSE) found it harder to engage on-line and maintain momentum. Graduates were more likely to relish the opportunity to spend more time learning.
  • The divides were not confined to students, pupils and apprentices. An equal challenge was to extend pastoral care to line managers and teaching staff, many of whom also needed support in working from home. There was also a need to maintain a community feeling, for both students and staff, with on-line quizzes and guest speakers.
  • Most adult education students were previously unemployed, referred by Job Centre Plus. New referrals have been on-line but absolute beginners face challenges, e.g. with keyboard and mouse. The engagement with students is also very different, beginning with how to use Teams and/or Zoom.
  • Much has been done to address access problems and divides over the past three months. Much more is in train. But, however good the access and ease of use, support from real humans for all ages and types of learning and training will remain critical – including for motivation and invigilation. The latter is needed to assure accrediting organisations that the person behind the terminal is who they say they are and does not have access to the “answers”.
  • We do not know how long the Covid-19 pandemic will last. More-over we appear to have entered “the age of pandemics”. The way forward therefore needs to include routine access to socially distanced community learning facilities (libraries, schools, church and village halls etc.), with human supervision and support in the use of local, national and international courses, materials and assessment services. The UK is in a unique postiion to create the necessary infrastructure at little or no extra cost by linking and building on existing programmes.
  • The Joint Academic Network serves universities, research centres, science parks, colleges and the Grids for Learning which provide secure broadband for most schools. JANET also links most of the UK smart city networks (usually with a local university super-computer centre at the heart). Add Broadband vouchers and the £5 billion outside-in full fibre programme networks and we have the building blocs for the world’s largest and most interconnected home market for education and training products and services. The missing link is the processes for inter-connectivity, of promotion and marketing, not just technology.
  1. Ensuring public sector support programmes are fit for purpose, sustainable and intelligble
  • There are many support programmes on offer,  pre-existing and new. The combination looks great, but making sense of it is not easy, either for employers or applicants. How could/should they choose which to use? For support programmes to achieve their objective they must be intelligible to the target audiences and make sense to their advisors.
  • Under the recently announced programmes employers receive an incentive of £1,000 per Traineeship, which may range from 6 weeks to 6 months with varying requirements. Kickstart is for those aged 16 – 24 who are out of work, on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. There are varying incentives for apprenticeships according to age. Meanwhile T-Levels will require 45 week industry placements. Meanwhile the Essential Digital Skills entitlement for launch the Autumn is fully funded and a huge demand is expected. This will present challenges of scalability and resilience of delivery as well as of maintaining quality.
  • Apprenticeship policy needs to be revisited to change employer attitudes towards training. There are some good incentives but, if apprenticeships are to be front and centre of government skills policy post Covid, we need to repurpose the unspent levy, including to better enable young people and the unskilled to access apprenticeships leading to future careers.
  • There is a need for a functional skills review, away from academic skills and towards those required for jobs in current demand. The requirement for 20% off-the-job is a serious barrier to uptake as well as being unnecessary and expensive given the need to provide socially distanced facilities for the foreseeable future.
  • There is also a need to address many disconnects between the UK benefits and skills systems. For example one of the factors limiting success of the extension of the Home Office PREVENT programme to harness the talents of potential hackers (as well as turn-round potential terrorists) is the loss of family benefits when a trainee is offered paid work experience. They should not have to choose between leaving home and leaving the programme. Mature trainees with family responsibilities can face similarly difficult choices.
  • The choices between benefits and education, training and work experience programmes need to make sense to pupils and students of all ages, including those emerging from furlough, on the margins of the workforce, as well as those whose education and/or training has been disrupted (e.g. apprentices whose employer has gone bankrupt).
  • Recent research indicates the fragmentation of sources used by those seeking employment or advice. Top comes ad hoc searching across job sites. Then come friends, followed by on-line searches. Finally come schools and colleges followed by Job Centre Plus.
  • Advice needs to be available when needed, not it is most convenient for the provider (e.g. early years education because there is room in school timetables). It should be on-line, (including to advisors), driven by labour market information based on real jobs with real employers. Relevance and inter-activity are essential for teachers, parents, pupils and advisors.
  • Past work on engaging employers with careers programmes indicates the importance of working with the Careers and Enterprise Company and the LEPs to organise support for sustainable relationships between local employers, schools and colleges with stable, properly resourced and trained careers leaders in post. This approach needs to be extended to embrace all age groups
  • Employers need similar help with making senses of the various support programmes. A more immediate problem, however, is to identify reputable training providers amidst the many on-line offers of cheap or free on-line training for their employees. Many are of limited relevance or value. Some are irresponsible and/or fraudulent. The first step is to assemble and publicise registers of those already subject to quality control by organisations seen to be relevant and credible by professional bodies, trade associations and major employers.
  •  Employers trying to do the right thing by their employees are trying to do this without spending funds and commonly pushing them towards free offers. But these are of variable and often unknown quality. One suggestion is therefore for “Furlough vouchers” to make it easier for employers to support their employees (including those in furlough) and ensure that reputable training providers who they might wish to use in the future are not undercut.
  • Restricting the use of vouchers to providers recognised by participating employers could help drive quality and repurposing. But they need to be targeted at the skills of future, not just those in employers’ immediate, short term, interest or even in those of the employees. Vouchers should therefore be strategic, local as well as national, focused on specific skills and industries. The registers of providers with whom they can be used might therefore be a mix of those accredited nationally by professional bodies and trade association registers and those with whom LEPs and Local Authorities have arrangements.
  • There is much discussion about the use of infrastructure spend to help pull through job creation and local procurement to reduce future supply chain vulnerability. Much public sector procurement has, in the past, gone down the lowest cost route, using simplistic interpretations of EU procurement rules. This has created many negative pressures, including a race to bottom on quality and security of supply.
  • There is a need to focus on additionality in the supply chain. Good models for Social Values procurement within the relevant UK legislation are emerging but have yet to gain traction. There is a need to promote common interpretations which also encourage local job creation, reskilling and lifelong learning and reward good employers for doing good business.
  1. Towards a six point plan for a post-Covid, future ready UK skills strategy
  • The education and skills planning, accreditation and funding mechanisms of central and local government demonstrated that they could not handle the pace of change before lockdown. The future role of Government should therefore be to create frameworks that support and facilitate the growth of local, regional and national partnerships of employers and education/training providers to address identified market needs.
  •  The most important action is to enable pupils, students, workers, employers, providers and their advisors to make sense of what is on already offer. HMG should Package and promote 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 encourage training, including the attraction, selection and recruitment of future apprentices, there is a need to extend and simplify the apprenticeship levy to cover all forms of employer recognised and accredited training and skills development programmes, using evolving skills definitions based on real jobs and market intelligence.
  • Government spend on infrastructure, economic regeneration or supply chain resilience should use U K Social Value legislation to embed local recruitment and training into all public procurements to encourage robust supply chains, job creation, reskilling and lifelong learning and to reward good employers for doing good business.
  • To exploit the revolution in educational technology and create domestic markets to support world-class content we should encourage and publicise seamless on-line access to education, training and careers materials and advice from schools, college and Universities across the Joint Academic Network, the Grids for Learning and other secure, resilient networks.
  • To help overcome the social and geographic divides opened up by lockdown we should use JANET, the Grids, broadband vouchers and the £5 billion outside-in broadband programme to enable full fibre networks to link community life-long learning hubs in every science and business park, commercial centre, school, library, community centre and village hall.
  • To foster the growth of domestic training providers capable of expanding to meet demand over the year ahead and beyond we should use furlough/training voucher programmes, focused on specific skills and industries within local strategies, to help drive quality and repurposing, using employer-recognised providers, to develop the skills of future, not just those in immediate demand.

 

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