New skills for the changing world of work

11th July 2017 at 15:43
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, argues that now is the time to reboot skills and learning opportunities

One of Theresa May’s first acts as prime minister was to ask Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, to review modern employment practices, particularly relating to the "gig economy" and the growth in self employment. That review, published today, makes a clear case for a focus on "good work". We all have a role to play in making it happen.

It's around one year since Theresa May became prime minister, but it seems like a political lifetime ago. She perhaps knows more about insecure work than she did before the general election…But her words on the steps of Downing Street a year ago, talking about those in work but low paid, struggling to get by – the "just about managing" – still resonate.

This is related to poor wage growth (the Resolution Foundation find we’re on track for the worst decade for living standards since the Napoleonic Wars), but also a rise in insecurity: employment is at record highs, but Learning and Work Institute research shows 3.1 million people in some form of insecure work, a rise of half a million over five years.

The flip side of this is low productivity: we are one-third less productive than the US, Germany and France. Indeed productivity is now actually going backwards. This matters because productivity is the ultimate long-term driver of living standards and also provides extra money for public services.

So there is a clear economic and social case for focusing on the quality of work and people’s security. This is one of the challenges of our times, not least as we must find a way to do this without harming employment or people’s choices – the flexibility and diversity of employment opportunities is one of the UK’s great strengths.

The Taylor blueprint

The Taylor Review aims to walk this tightrope. Immediate attention has focused on specific measures, such as the right to request fixed hours. But the review’s mission statement is worth a look: that all work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment. This seems to me something we can all get behind.

The review has lots of focus on proposals to ensure a level playing field between different forms of employment. For example, although political realities may mean the return of the chancellor’s abandoned National Insurance rise for the self-employed is not imminent, it will surely happen at some stage and be matched by increased access to parental and other benefits. There is also a drive to maintain flexibility (so no ban on zero-hours contracts), and ensure a fair balance between worker and business (such as the right to request a guaranteed-hours contract after one year, and tougher enforcement of rules). All of these will have implications for the education and skills sector and its workforce.

Work with development opportunities

But it is the review’s ideas on how to ensure work has scope for development that I want to focus on. The review makes clear this cannot be done by regulation alone, it is the responsibility of all of us (people, employers, shareholders, customers). It's good to see the role of learning in achieving this and that the report spells out the UK’s shocking shortfall in basic skills as a barrier to it.

Beyond this, the clear message I take away is that we need a new learning offer to reflect the new world of work. For example, a greater focus on high-quality apprenticeships and consideration of what the requirement for 20 per cent off-the-job training means when hours and work are fluctuating week to week. I'm also pleased to see Learning and Work Institute's longstanding calls for more flexible apprenticeships and fairer access to apprenticeships, echoed too – the review endorses our call for the Institute for Apprenticeships to report regularly on this.

The standout for me is the call for a new system of Personal Learning Accounts and for Advanced Learner Loans to be more flexible. This is something we've long argued for, both as a way of increasing individual investment in learning (alongside state investment) and to build in more flexibility and individual ownership. If the government listens to anything, please let it be this.

Finally, it's good to see better support for people to progress from low pay highlighted as an important frontier for public policy. The Review rightly argues we need to test approaches that help people progress in work as this is a relatively new field. Learning and Work Institute are involved in many of the current trials taking place – there is interesting practice from working with employers in Glasgow, supporting skills development in east London, and engaging through third sector organisations in South London.

Flexibility and changes in technology bring new opportunities. They also mean we need to make sure support and learning match these changes in the world of work. Ultimately, good work is good for us all.

Stephen Evans is the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute 

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