Julian’s York Press Column: Up-skilling the Workforce of Tomorrow
April 6, 2017
Last week at Prime Minister’s Questions I asked Theresa May about the steps her Government is taking to improve technical and vocational education, so that our young people are properly prepared to take up high-quality skilled jobs when they leave education.
As a country we have a chronic skills shortage and a productivity shortfall relative to our international competitors. This holds back our economy, restrains wage growth and living standards, and risks becoming more of a glaring problem as we leave the EU. It should come as no surprise that one of Theresa May’s first priorities since becoming Prime Minister has been to start work on an Industrial Strategy to address this issue, but it is important that we get this right.
The concept of productivity is a strange one, but essentially it is how effective the economy is in turning hours of work into valuable product. Our problem is that if our competitors, Germany, France, and the United States, all took 3-day weekends they would be on par with our productivity level. Perhaps the Green Party should suggest levelling the playing field abroad to allow us to catch up instead of proposing it here? In all seriousness though, I believe that the key underlying issue is the mismatch between skills needed by employers and the graduates delivered by the education system here in the UK.
The debate about how many people we should be sending to university has been well aired since Tony Blair targeted 50 per cent participation in 2002, but I believe fixing an arbitrary figure is an outdated and mistaken approach. Instead we should focus less on the number of courses and places being offered and more on the best way to give young people the skills and knowledge they need for the dynamic twenty-first-century jobs market. A degree might not be necessarily better than a rigorous apprenticeship or on-the-job training scheme.
Degrees are certainly valuable, there is no denying that, but they aren’t right for everyone. A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that 58.8% of graduates were in non-graduate roles in 2015. Just imagine how these young people might have progressed if they undertook an apprenticeship or vocational education, gained technical and industry recognised qualifications, and had three years of industry experience.
It should come as no surprise to find out what employers might prefer, and this excludes the fact that these young people would have been ‘learning whilst earning’, instead of taking on personal debt.
One of the most consistently raised issues that I hear from businesses is about skills shortages, which is why I am pleased that the Government is taking this issue so seriously. The new apprenticeship levy on large businesses comes into force today, and not without controversy I accept, but with the sole purpose of up-skilling our workforce and delivering three million more apprenticeships by 2020.
In my view it is the perception of technical education that needs to change, and this is more of a cultural and societal norm than simply something that Government can solve. Quite rightly there is an element of prestige associated with university degrees, but I believe technical education must have parity with these qualifications. I am pleased that the Chancellor recognised precisely this point in the Spring Budget, announcing £500m to introduce ‘T-levels’, the technical education equivalent of ‘A-levels’. This much clearer system of qualifications will be designed around matching skills with jobs, replacing 13,000 different courses with 15 career-focused qualifications.
My constituency is home to a number of secondary schools, further education colleges and a globally respected university. British productivity will only be bolstered if we ensure that young people in all of these institutions are given the necessary skills and education so that they are best prepared to enter the world of work, in whatever sector that might be. As Article 50 negotiations pick up pace over the next two years we must rapidly gear up to face the new opportunities and challenges outside of the European Union, and I believe this has to start by better linking education and jobs, upskilling our workforce, driving up productivity, which will boost wages and living standards as a result.