Strong case for stronger skills

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Learn to Succeed. The case for a skills revolution By Mike Campbell Published by The Policy Press ISBN 1-86134-269-1 pound;17.99

Colin Flint reviews a compelling book which calls for a workplace revolution

Mike Campbell is director of policy and research at the Sector Skills Development Agency. He is enthusiastic about skills - and so must all of us be, because "skills" are the cornerstone of much of the economic and educational strategy of the country.

The case for change is undoubtedly strong: Britain ranks 12th out of 15 in the European Union, and 18th out of 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for gross domestic product.

Productivity in the United States is 40 per cent above ours, and we lag behind France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland, amongst others.

And we have a relatively poorly skilled workforce. The case for a skills revolution is compelling. The book argues that raising skills levels is crucial to both economic success and social inclusion, though it does not devote much space to the latter. Neither does it reflect on the fact that US productivity is so much higher than ours despite their literacy rates being even worse than ours.

Professor Campbell looks at the skills we have got: workforce qualifications, inequalities (30.7 per cent of the economically inactive have no qualification of any kind); participation in learning; barriers to achievement; regional differences; skills shortages. The tables and bar-charts produced here are excellent.

He gives us an equally cogent analysis of the skills that we need in a changed economy and a changing world, with detailed tables of skill trends by occupation and the types of work skill changes.

There can be little doubt that Britain needs to improve the levels of skills in its workforce. There is a strong relationship between the qualifications people possess and their earnings, evidenced here. The gaps will certainly grow. We probably have no alternative to using "qualifications" as a proxy for skills, though they are clearly not the same things. What we very urgently need to do is to improve educational opportunity and access, and levels of participation, and to stop treating vocational qualifications as inferior to "academic" ones. We will then have more people with skills, including those required by plumbers.

This is a valuable book: cogent, compelling, compact. It is a convincing case. Let us just be sure that we ally the arguments for higher levels of skills to an equal determination to improve access to learning for all.

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