In truth, government policy is being aimed in the right direction – with very good work already undertaken on trailblazers and Lord Sainsbury’s review on technical education – and, in Robert Halfon, we clearly have a very committed and passionate minister of state for apprenticeships and skills.
We also know reform of apprenticeships is long overdue, as is a fundamental shift in technical education. But while debating the need for change for decades, employers and the education and skills sector have struggled to make it happen. Now, it is hoped that the levy might be the game changer to facilitate the much-needed reform. Employer involvement is obviously important and if we can also get the workforce engaged then we will truly start to see major improvements.
However, although we now have some excellent reformed apprenticeships, this is not so across the board. There is still a significant number of employers and training organisations not yet on board. Those of us involved in the detail also know there are implementation issues and progress has been very slow.
Brexit can only bring productivity and competitiveness into sharper focus. The ONS is already estimating that Germany, France and the USA are each about a third more productive than the UK.
'Priorities, investment and enhancement'
So what will improve productivity and with it competitiveness and social mobility? I believe it must be industrial priorities, capital investment, technological exploitation and skills enhancement. We replace just over 2 per cent of our workforce each year through entrants from the education system. We also recruit around 1.6 per cent of our workforce through gross immigration while losing half of this through emigration. It means at any point the vast majority of the productive workforce has been here for some while.
Investment focused on the education system, including reformed apprenticeships for young people and the post-16 skills plan is clearly long-term. Alone it will take around 25 years to impact the productivity of just 50 per cent of the workforce. So if we are to achieve early benefits in productivity and social mobility we must invest in the existing workforce through short-term investment in upskilling, literacy, numeracy and management development. I believe the UK must proceed with the reforms we have started; if not, we risk putting off the fundamental reforms for perhaps another decade – and that presents an unacceptable risk for our economy as Brexit looms.
We need to be realistic and overcome the challenges quickly. It means setting up the Institute for Apprenticeships swiftly, resourced by people with real industry experience who understand the needs of employers and their various sectors. It's not an ‘administrative’ role. It needs to be a practical and ‘technically’ driven organisation – the single vehicle necessary to drive through all the changes.
'We risk putting off reform for a decade'
But we must also be clear on the need to establish a single and coherent skills enhancement strategy, with both productivity improvement and social mobility embedded in it. The UK also needs to create a single and integrated skills system which will seamlessly blend the academic and technical education routes, apprenticeships and work-based training – with smooth transitions between the four.
The question, then, is does this happen at 11, 14, 16, 18 or 21 – or all of these because at what point do we encourage people to specialise, bearing in mind if they specialise too early they may not have the transferable skills to change career later on. We must also be clear on the vision for the single skills system and the strategy to get there. We need to improve the method and process for implementation which builds upon the good work done to date, whilst speeding it up. To integrate all of the initiatives, while cutting the number of ‘standards’ and ‘technical qualifications’, we need to adopt techniques such as careers pathways creating the clearer and simpler career paths the minister seeks.
Remember the question was: 'What can we all do so the students, apprentices and workforce in 2020 are 33 per cent more productive than those in 2015?' If we get the single skills enhancement strategy and underpinning system right, the question could be answered.
Graham Hasting-Evans is managing director of NOCN
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