Follow politics for long enough and there are phrases you lose faith in: “rebalance the economy,” “reboot manufacturing,” “build more homes.” All these are slogans that politicians of all stripes, sometimes with the best of intentions, have struggled to deliver on for 20 years or more. But “upgrade Britain’s vocational training” is in a category of its own. Since—at least—the Royal Commission set up by Prince Albert in 1851, the UK has fretted that it isn’t matching competitors such as Germany in training the next generation in industrial know-how, and then has failed to do anything about it.
This longer view might make us more forgiving of Tony Blair’s failure to achieve the promised “parity of esteem” with academic qualifications, and—in the blunt words of Conservative MP Robert Halfon—David Cameron’s “pipe dream” of three million apprenticeships by 2020. But today, there has to be a new urgency. Politically, the Brexit vote revealed a significant number of towns where people resent the lack of good jobs; meanwhile, economically, after a decade in which productivity has been as flat as a pancake, the UK is about to have to navigate its own course in the world.
Happily, thanks to the new apprenticeship levy, there should finally be more resources to turn the familiar skills rhetoric into reality. This is despite the bumpy start that Labour’s Gordon Marsden is right to highlight: there is a long history of funds being misallocated. Perhaps the best way to avoid this is to stop the skills system being captured by individual employers. Clearly, courses must be designed with a view to the needs of the workplace. But subsidies must be concentrated on training that employers would not anyway provide. And that means transferable aptitudes, not skills that are only of use to one particular firm. If we get it right, not only do we get more bang for each buck from the levy; we will also provide workers with the protection that they need to cope with the known unknowns of tomorrow’s economy.