Let's use this crisis to tackle Britain's woeful skills shortage

13 May 2020

5:49 PM

13 May 2020

5:49 PM

Training. What a turn-off. The very word casts a shadow over the page. That is partly because it has become such a specialised field, awash in hundreds of different programmes producing less and less of what we need as a society. Most policy makers don’t understand it, let alone citizens.

The Covid-19 crisis is a chance to change this. The economy is on the point of a great reshaping and if the state can pay the wages of millions it can support the retraining of millions.

Too much of our education and training spend now goes on 18 and 19-year-olds in higher education doing full-time residential three or four year courses. This means we over-produce then grade-inflate too many bachelor degrees. One third of graduates are not in graduate jobs, while we suffer debilitating shortages in skilled trades, construction and middle-skill technician jobs (including the vital lab staff we see on our TVs). We talk endlessly about lifelong learning yet adult education and re-education are in freefall and the apprenticeship system is not working for school leavers.

Here are three ideas for an emergency training package, drawn from my new report for Policy Exchange, A Training Opportunity in the Crisis, aimed mainly at non-university bound school-leavers and adult retrainers.

First, an ‘opportunity grant’ of £3,000 for every adult, the money to go direct to the providers of approved job-relevant courses. Individuals cannot see the costs and benefits of different courses of action so need an official training map to describe available courses and their costs, the job opportunities after a course and the average pay for that particular skill. The government could use the map to guide people to skill shortage areas and might offer higher grants for a coder or construction electrician.

Second, suspend the current apprenticeship levy and replace with a simplified model focused on school leavers (less than ten per cent now enter an apprenticeship) with government and employers splitting the full cost 50/50. The current levy covers less than one third of the total cost, so employers have used it on discretionary training for older workers. The government should also promote decent training via public procurement rules.

Third, current bail out conditions provide the government with leverage to weed out weaker university courses and create a sub-set of ‘applied universities’, undoing the mistake of abolishing polytechnics in 1992. Many post-1992 universities are already largely vocational but the government should insist that they offer courses aimed at a wider range of students: 18 month/two year courses, part-time, and so on.

The UK must remain a global centre of education and research, indeed develop even further in this direction, but not allow a global focus, especially in higher education, to distract us from sorting out the glaring problems in our own backyard.

David Goodhart is Policy Exchange’s Head of Demography

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