How can we equip workers to adapt to the new economy?by Tom Clark / November 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
The pandemic is going to destroy a big chunk of the economy, as well as many lives. A second national lockdown confirms that. The question, as Megan Greene asks, is whether the destruction of old jobs and firms can be accompanied by a creativity that produces new ones.
In principle, there are plenty of reasons this could happen—just as society is discovering it can get by with a lot less hospitality and business travel, so it is finding it needs more IT wizards, work-from-home consultants and healthcare workers. But to hop from old jobs to the new, workers need the right skills.
Britain has bemoaned the state of its vocational—as distinct from academic—education since at least Victorian times, when a commission warned that the workshop of the world would fall behind rising industrial giants that took training more seriously. Over the 170 years since, there has been much talk and many unfulfilled plans, like the technical schools that were meant to provide a “third stream” alongside the post-war grammars and secondary moderns, but did not quite come off.
But there never has been an enduring solution. As a policy problem, inadequate public funding, as highlighted by Kate Green here, is one issue, but so is ensuring the cash is spent on training extra people: you need employers involved enough to ensure training is relevant, without drawing them in so deeply that they rig the system to pay for training they were always going to do, a point that education expert Alison Wolf made in a shrewd report for the coalition government. Beyond that, there is a cultural problem—English snobbishness—that prevents parity of esteem for vocational courses, and an institutional problem whereby the skills agenda falls between the gaps of central and local government and independent colleges.
Skills have also been passed from pillar to post around Whitehall—sometimes bundled in departmentally with education, sometimes industry, sometimes science and tech. On this, at least, it is heartening that when we approached two ministers with different portfolios for their thoughts, they were joined up enough to come back with the single piece here.