Making the self-made

18th July 2014 at 01:00

The final report of the Wood Commission on developing Scotland's young workforce has been widely welcomed. I, too, welcome it, but I am concerned about a glaring omission.

Consider this quote: "Moving beyond school, we must ensure that young people at college pursue studies with an expectation that they will lead successfully to employment in the prevailing labour market."

Throughout the report the entire focus is on traditional forms of employment. This is very important but it is not sufficient to address the issue of the "prevailing labour market", which includes a growing number of people operating on a self-employed basis. Across the UK, the number of self-employed people rose by a remarkable 183,000 in the quarter to March 2014. We do not have up-to-date data on Scotland as yet, but it would be surprising if it were immune to such changes.

Furthermore, many areas of Scotland's economy, ranging from the creative industries to the oil and gas sector, utilise large numbers of self-employed workers.

Yet, as I argued before what was then known as the Enterprise and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament as far back as 2005, our education sector fails to prepare people for self-employment. It is easy to find support for starting your own business, but not for making the move to self-employment.

Whether someone becomes self-employed out of necessity or because of a more positive desire to seek out opportunities, they will fare much better if they understand and have skills in a wide variety of areas.

To take one simple example that every college business studies department should be able to address, the self-employed have their own tax regime. If they understand it and can navigate it, there are some real benefits they can exploit, but if they don't understand it and don't manage their affairs effectively, they can face unexpected and substantial tax bills. To leave students unprepared for this aspect of working life is an unnecessary weakness in their education.

There is a real debate to be had about whether or not rising levels of self-employment are a good thing. Economist Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, has called self-employment "the last refuge of the desperate". That may be true for some - the "necessity self-employed" - but it is decidedly not true of those seeking to positively exploit opportunities. And the "opportunity self-employed" make a significant contribution to economic growth.

But regardless of which category self-employed people fall into, they have common education and skill needs that continue to be ignored by policymakers and educationalists.

Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, a former member of the Scottish government change team and an adviser on post-16 educational reform

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