Triple whammy for skills drive

Neil Munro

THE skills gap, which will preoccupy the lifelong learning agenda from now on, is being widened by a triple whammy, according to parent leaders in Scotland. Asylum-seekers may hold the answer, they suggest.

In a statistical analysis for the Scottish Parliament's lifelong learning inquiry, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council points to:

* A dramatic drop in the number of births.

* Too many young people going into higher education.

* Fiftysomethings approaching retirement.

Members of the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee have already expressed concern at reported skill shortages in the electronics, oil, gas, construction, information technology and management sectors (TESS, June 29).

MSPs from all parties believe there needs to be a stronger emphasis on vocational qualifications at subdegree level rather than graduates, an approach the SPTC welcomes. It suggests, however, that the skills shortage is exacerbated by a "people shortage".

Births have fallen by half over 30 years, from a peak of 104,355 in 1964 to 53,076 last year. That figure is set to fall to 40,000 in 25 years' time. Primary schools may lose 50,000 children by 2010, equivalent to the removal of one whole year group.

The SPTC comments: "Against this absolute fall in the number of live births, the current policy of encouraging more and more youngsters into higher education reduces even further the number available to take up the much-needed subdegree skills. Moreover, youngsters who go to higher education are often persuaded that they do not wish to work in these areas of skill shortage.

"So whereas in 1964 some 10 per cent of the population went on to higher education, leaving just under 94,000 youngsters to undertake subdegree courses and work, now nearly 50 per cent of the current generation of 18-year-olds is likely to go on to higher education. This will leave only some 32,500 youngsters to consider subdegree courses and work."

The SPTC also notes the ageing profile of professions and trades, leading to a combination of an abundance of employees in their 50s approaching retirement alongside growing difficulties in recruiting young people.

The council points out that these demographic and educational changes are common to most European countries, where there is a similar pattern of "a well-educated citizenry dependent on immigrants to undertake necessary lower skilled work". It believes one solution would be to welcome asylum-seekers and make use of their skills.

Meanwhile, the convener of the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee said last week that Scotland must learn from the "ambition and investment" shown by countries like Ireland and Singapore.

Alex Neil told a conference at Warwick University that Ireland had committed pound;325 million to taking action on skills over the past two years, compared to pound;250,000 earmarked for Future Skills Scotland, the new labour market intelligence unit.

Mr Neil also pointed to Singapore's example of creating a lifelong learning fund that will be worth pound;2billion within four years.

He said: "Scotland must up the ante if it is to fulfil its potential and secure a position in the top 10 knowledge economy nations."

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Neil Munro

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