Britain must keep on learning

Conference season policy special: Skills

Conference season is here and Brexit will dominate. But what about education and skills? We asked two politicians to set out their plans
September 13, 2018
It’s time for a National Education Service

Gordon Marsden  Labour MP for Blackpool South, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills

The skills gap in the UK has grown as we enter a period of Brexit uncertainty. Our traditional solution to filling this gap has been to take skilled labour from outside the UK. But Brexit will make that harder. We must invest now in a far broader workforce.

Consecutive governments have failed to act. Since tuition fees were trebled in 2012, part-time and adult higher education has suffered a 59 per cent drop in England. In Further Education, the adult skills budget was cut by 40 per cent. These cuts have stopped attempts to close the skills gap. It will soon be difficult to build skilled local economies or address our productivity crisis. The government’s latest skills initiative, T-Levels, is mired in controversy. 

Meanwhile the number of adults in government-funded further education is still falling. The Skills Minister recently told parliament: “we should be shocked that one in two adults have the numeracy skills of an 11-year-old.” The UK is ranked 20th globally for English and maths, with 20 per cent of young adults below the basic level. Around 9m adults have low literacy or numeracy. More than 700,000 young people (16-24) not in work or education. 

The complacency surrounding basic skills and those not in education, employment or training must end. That is where Labour’s National Education Service, launched this spring, would play a central role. It would benefit workers currently in low-skill, low wage work who need new skills, as well as millions whose livelihoods are threatened by automation. 

We would create a coherent system of skills with a strong focus on retraining. Universities and colleges will all have a crucial part to play.

Labour’s plans would support the neglected young, enabling them to acquire skills with our restored Educational Maintenance Allowance. We would also turbo-charge the Traineeship programme, which has been so abysmally neglected by this government, alongside our pledges on tuition fees and our commitment to a Lifelong Learning Commission. 

This will not all need to be micromanaged by Whitehall. If Labour mayors and combined authorities can develop local strategies to boost skills in the service sector, the digital economy, creative industries and in manufacturing, we could start now. It is that emphasis on skills progression which will improve life chances for millions of people, alongside the productivity and prosperity our economy desperately needs.


Don’t fear the robots—they’ll bring new jobs

Alok Sharma  Conservative MP for Reading West, Minister of State for Employment

The Chief Economist at the Bank of England recently warned that it is not just manual jobs at risk of automation. The robots, he said, may also come for our thinking jobs, replacing both the cognitive and the technical skills of humans. Previous revolutions in the workplace created alarm at the prospect of unemployment and inequality. But a look back in time also gives us insight into how we futureproof our workforce.

Analysis by Deloitte shows that over the last 150 years, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed—despite this, the idea that technology destroys jobs has dominated.

This is partly because many highly visible jobs—supermarket checkout workers, for example—have been replaced by automated systems. But record high employment makes clear that new jobs are being created.

It is also because we are not very good at predicting where new jobs will be created. The World Economic Forum suggests that 65 per cent of children starting school today will end up in a job that does not currently exist.

In 1871, just 1 per cent of the workforce was employed in the caring professions. By 2011, these professions employed almost a quarter of the England and Wales workforce.

These care professions are considered some of the safest jobs for the future, while those with repetitive activities are expected to decline. Jobs in sectors like manufacturing—and also the legal sector—have a high chance of being automated. It is estimated that technology has contributed to the loss of more than 31,000 jobs in the legal sector—but the same technologies also supported an overall increase of approximately 80,000 jobs, most of which are higher skilled and better paid.

This fits in with the pattern we have seen across the economy since 2010—3.3m more people are in work, with around three-quarters in full-time roles, and seven out of 10 are in higher-skilled occupations which pay higher wages. Unemployment is at its lowest level in four decades, inequality has narrowed since the last recession and absolute poverty rates are at a record low.

What we need to focus on now is future-proofing the workforce. That is why we are introducing a National Retraining Scheme, to support people as they adapt to changes at the workplace. Also, the government’s Industrial Strategy sets out plans for £64m of investment in digital and construction training, with an initial investment of £30m to test the use of AI in education technology.

In addition, employers are excellent educators—since 2015, there have been over 1.4m apprenticeships created. Many employers are also opening up their schemes to the over-fifties. The participation of this group in the labour market is increasing, with more than 10m people over the age of 50 in work. We also have a record high black, Asian and minority ethnic employment rate, and record numbers of women in work.

Government is also removing barriers to the workplace. Universal Credit offers support with the cost of childcare, with up to 85 per cent of costs re-reimbursed, and it incentivises work as people’s payments automatically adjust to what they earn each month. With this new system, we are seeing people moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the legacy benefit system.

With this work underway, and with our progress in increasing labour market participation, we can be confident in our efforts to build a workforce fit for the future—even if we cannot predict exactly what it will bring.