Let's take a bite of Apple

Over the space of a couple of evenings last week, I listened to a collection of academics and policy experts discuss how far skills can alleviate the desperate employment prospects of young people, and then watched the launch of the latest iPhone, followed by the eulogies for the Apple founder, Steve Jobs.

What was jarring was that these events could exist in the same era. On the one hand was a discussion of debt and worklessness, and on the other, a celebration of the success of some of the most expensive and advanced technology in the world.

It's an amazing fact that the bulk of Apple's journey to become the wealthiest company in the world was completed in the teeth of the worst financial crisis for 70 years. The company now takes in five times more money than it did before Lehman Brothers fell three years ago.

This isn't unheard of: the Great Depression threw up some moguls, too. But they were people like J Paul Getty, who built his empire buying up depressed oil stocks, or Michael "Price Wrecker" Cullen, who pioneered the modern supermarket.

Part of Apple's success is a grim reminder of the continuing growth in inequality. While 20 per cent of young people worldwide are out of work, the wealthy few get clever phones that can talk back to them.

But, in a sense, this was what the panel at the debate, hosted by the new International Network for Sector Skills Organisations, concluded that western countries needed to do themselves: develop high-value industry that will support increasing numbers of well-paid jobs.

To do that in an environment where the price of higher education is soaring, with little return for many, and where even vocational skills are not of much use without new jobs, they said we need an industrial policy that helps business build the capacity to use higher skills, innovate and generate demand.

It was at about this point that I realised that what they wanted was for skills policy to be run more like Apple. But the UK Government's approach is far more like that of Apple's competitors.

Apple develops new products in secret, never consults focus groups, and resists adding features common to competitors in favour of its own product vision. It produces what the market does not yet know it wants. Critics accuse it of being centralising, anti-consumer, even authoritarian. But in its control from the centre, it is rather like how Governments used to operate, before they became convinced that the market knew better than they or their civil servants ever could.

By contrast, the Government has embraced decentralisation for skills, a demand-led free-for-all, which resembles more the open and pluralistic approaches of Apple's rivals, such as Google. By giving people what they thought they wanted, Google and its partners have won huge market share, but at the low end.

Similarly, by catering for what employers demand today, the Government has seen its training investment head into a mass of low-end retail and customer-service apprenticeships, often for people already in jobs, not those seeking work.

Of course, Apple is a one-off. Its success may not outlast its totemic former CEO for long. But its recent history is a powerful counterpoint to the orthodoxy that planning and vision is useless against the market's wisdom of crowds. In tough times, it may be just what is called for.

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