Living and working through this crisis has been fascinating, frustrating, distressing and scary in equal measure. Whether it’s engaging in the passionate discussions about reopening schools and colleges, poring over the daily graphs of cases and deaths, scanning the scientific evidence and potential for a vaccine, it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment.
So, it was refreshing when Stephen Evans from Learning and Work Institute and Tony Wilson from Institute for Employment Studies pulled together a group to discuss the employment, work and skills issues we will face over the next year and more. Put together, this really was an expert group, able to call upon many years of experience in policy through numerous recessions.
Priorities for focus
The result was a paper, published last week: Help wanted: Getting Britain back to work. This paper analyses what we know now, uses evaluations of past programmes and puts forward five priorities for focus.
The paper makes for stark reading, with many commentators and analysts believing that the crisis we are in will lead to a far deeper and long-running dip in economic output. The impact already on the labour market indicates that those fears look realistic, with over two million people making claims for Universal Credit in March and April, seven times their usual levels at their peak.
At the same time, the number of vacancies in the economy has fallen by three fifths, with potential for even worse. Our report, like others in recent weeks, shows how the impact has been uneven, with young people, women and the lower-paid hardest hit because of the sectors of the economy they tend to work in.
The picture is unlikely to get better any time soon, and with around 800,000 young people leaving education this summer, the autumn will offer slim pickings in the labour market. The sensible extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has eased the impact so far, but it is not clear how many of the over seven million furloughed workers will be able to return to their jobs as it winds down at the end of October.
This suggests that a very high number of people will be newly unemployed, with young people at the back of the queue, lacking the work experience which many others will have to offer employers. Those newly unemployed will join the 3.2 million people out of work from before the crisis who wanted to work and the 800,000 young people outside education and training. The scale of this might be bigger than any of us have seen before.
The response from government needs to be as unprecedented and ambitious as the CJRS scheme has been. We know that a range of programmes and support will be needed to meet the needs of a very diverse group of people. Those with high skills, good work experience, with poor literacy and numeracy, with little or no work experience, ready for work soon, needing more support and help. No one answer will work, and our paper tries to cover all bases.
Colleges are ready to do their bit, in partnership with others, but as we have made clear to government, they need investment and they need flexibilities in current programmes. Our expectation is that there will be around 100,000 more young people wanting or needing a September Promise of a place in education this year. Accommodating every one of them in a productive and purposeful programme is possible, but as every week goes by without new resources being made available, colleges will simply not be able to invest and prepare for them.
Colleges can also provide short course, priority sector-focused training for people wanting or needing to move from a declining sector into one with available jobs. They can provide the care, health, logistics, agriculture training which we know will be in demand, but not without new funding and flexibilities.
Moreover, colleges will need funding for the substantial investment needed for technology, building modifications and support for students to buy equipment to be able to learn online. The whole of the next academic year is likely to be adapted, with more blended learning and social distancing in colleges becoming the norm.
So whilst it is easy and understandable to be caught up in the here and now issues, we also need urgent action to be ready in the autumn. We need to offer some hope to young people leaving education, to those being made redundant and for those who have been and may remain long term unemployed. That urgent action comes with a big price tag, but the costs of not investing now will remain with us as a society for years to come, with a weaker economy and hundreds of thousands of citizens scarred by their experience of unemployment. We must find the funding to prevent that from happening.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.