Vaccine news aside, we still need urgent action on jobs

Covid-19 has caused significant harm to the economy and jobs – and even with a vaccine, that won't go away, writes Nora Senior

Nora Senior

Covid-19 vaccine: Good news aside, we need urgent action on jobs

Positive news about progress on Covid-19 vaccinations is much needed and extremely welcome. But sadly, however soon the vaccination is rolled out, the pandemic has already caused significant harm to our economy, and to jobs. 

A recent YouGov poll has found that as many as half of British businesses expect to make redundancies by the end of the year. We need radical action to ensure that people, businesses and communities are not left behind.

And this isn’t just about the economic impact of coronavirus, significant though that is. Retraining and equipping people, at all stages of their careers, to ensure they have the right skills to take up new opportunities in sectors they have never considered working in or that are coming down the tracks as we move to a zero-carbon economy, for instance, will be an essential part of the workplace of the future.

Recent research from the business body CBI has found that nine out of 10 workers will need to retrain by 2030 in order to keep up with changes in the world of work – with as many as 21 million people requiring upskilling in basic digital skills, for example.


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The neglect of adult education

Sadly, we have neglected adult education for far too long. In England, adult education budgets have been cut by 50 per cent over the past decade. In his recent speech at Exeter College, the prime minister acknowledged that at the moment, adults aged 24 and above are able to access virtually no free training or education. This has led to what he described as a “haemorrhage, in the last 20 years, in adult education”, with one million fewer adults in education than there were at the start of the millennium. That means that redressing this requires urgent, concerted action over the long term.  

Last month, we published the English-specific final report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. It’s increasingly recognised that colleges have been an under-supported and under-funded part of our education and skills system. It has to be said that part of this is because politicians, policymakers, journalists and other opinions formers are much more likely to have studied at university, or to have children doing so, and as such misunderstand or have a distorted view of what colleges do and deliver. But the fact remains that colleges have a critical role to play as hubs of lifelong learning in every community – and that this role is now more important than ever.

It was very welcome to see the chancellor reaffirm the UK government’s commitment to introducing a Lifetime Skills Guarantee in England in the spending review. In meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow, we need to open up education to all. Fundamentally this needs to be reflected in a new statutory right to lifelong learning that ensures people can retrain and upskill when they need to. Supporting people to study for free up to level 3 is critical – but a new right to lifetime learning must mean that grants and loans, which currently are only available to those that study at university, are opened up to everyone. This means serious investment in lifetime careers and skills advice, so that people – whether facing redundancy or keen to change careers as the world changes – are aware of the options available to them. 

The importance of strategic partnerships

As a former president of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), I know that we need a much deeper partnership between employers and colleges, together with universities, schools and other training providers. This has to involve a much more joined-up offer from the education and skills system to engage with employers and co-develop and design strategic programmes across innovation and skills. 

That is why we’re calling on the UK government to invest in the development of specialist college “employer hubs”, working with universities, councils and others, as a one-stop shop for employers, offering an opportunity to get support on skills needs and to get strategic advice in areas such as new business models and workplace innovation to try out new technologies, as we recover from the pandemic and transition to a green economy.

So, it is promising to hear reports that the idea of "college business centres" is one that is gaining traction. Our vision for such a concept is that their central remit should be as a vehicle for colleges to support employers to understand how skills and education can support them. This should be just one part of building meaningful, long-term partnerships of equals between employers and colleges. And this can only be made possible with wider reforms to delivering simpler, longer-term and sufficient funding so that colleges can truly be agile to the changing world of work. 

But the new partnership with employers has to be a proper two-way street – and this means employers can no longer sit on the sidelines. Employers need to engage as a responsible part of the skills system. And it means colleges playing a role in stimulating the demands of business, too. It is only then that the college of the future will empower people with the right skills they need throughout their lives so that they can get on in good jobs and businesses can prosper.

Nora Senior is executive chair UK regions/Ireland of Weber Shandwick, the non-exec chair of the Scottish government’s strategic board, and a commissioner on the College of the Future 

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Nora Senior

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