Let's not learn the hard way about migration

6th October 2006 at 01:00
We are faced with an imminent and dramatic decline in the number of school leavers over the next decade, just as the post-war bulge begin to leave the labour market.

Yet the Foster report on the future of colleges and the subsequent white paper substantially ignored its implications for adult learning, concentrating attention and intensifying expenditure on the young. People from all adult education interests met recently for a "Big Conversation"

organised by Niace. They were asked what should be done about this.

As part of the debate Niace published with Age Concern Learning in Later Life, and this week we published the findings of our inquiry English for speakers of other languages:More than a language. Together, they have important messages for the world of work Some planners are relaxed about the skills and labour shortages, confident that the market will find solutions. In the short run, the evidence is that firms are responding by recruiting from new members of the EU, and by outsourcing jobs to the Indian sub-continent or China.

Migration within the European Union will be boosted, too, if Bulgarian and Romanian workers are able to take advantage of EU labour mobility next January. Of itself, migration will not solve all the pressures on the labour market, but it does, it's argued, offer an alternative to overhauling post-school learning. Or does it?

The case of the Chinese cockle pickers drowned on Morecambe Sands, able to communicate by phone with China but unable to get help on the beach, highlights the importance of language skills, and the protection of employment rights for migrants.

As evidence to our inquiry makes clear, we are still dealing with the failure to support earlier migration from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. A Department of Work and Pensions paper shows that just 4 per cent of Bangladeshi and 28 per cent of Pakistani women outside the labour force have the English fluency needed for successful engagement in it.

The Learning and Skills Council now spends pound;279 million a year on ESOL, yet there are few places available for the marginalised, and waiting lists are growing.

In five years time, the numbers of young people entering work will have dropped dramatically, and the transitional measures that allow France, Germany and Italy to limit migration from the accession states will have ended. Will migrants moving to Britain now move to take advantage of opportunities in those countries?

Where will British business fill its jobs from? Despite the early success of Train to Gain in engaging older workers, we will need to do more to retrain and retain older workers, and find routes to work for people a long way from it.

It will be too late to start planning when the migrants move on, and desperate if we condemn our new neighbours to the poverty, isolation and alienation so many earlier migrants experienced.

Alan Tuckett is director of Niace, the national adult learning body

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