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A new world of work—and how to get there

Professionalise careers guidance, and four other ways to bridge the skills gap

By Jon Bernstein  

Prospect's roundtable discusses the future of work. Photo: Prospect

Lee Rowley is Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire and a self-described “interested but non-expert” observer of the debate on the impact of education, skills and training on the country’s economic and social wellbeing. He has a plea to those who have more specialist knowledge. “I’m not sure where we are going,” he told fellow attendees at a recent Prospect roundtable. “And until I know where we are going, I don’t know how to prepare my constituents.”

It’s a plea that’s easy to articulate but less easy to answer.

Rowley describes his constituency as post-industrial. It lost its mining industry three decades ago and has subsequently filled the gap with jobs in logistics and engineering— becoming a commuter town in the process, feeding Sheffield and elsewhere. He believes it will still be a commuter town in 20 years and that manufacturing will continue to be in demand—albeit only at the high end—but he is less sure about the longevity of logistics as a source of employment. “I don’t know what the skills exposure is,” he continued. “So, what do I tell my constituents about how they prepare [so we] don’t fall over like we did 30 years ago?”

His words were reflected by Joanne Hannant, group head of recruitment at the Association of British Ports (ABP). They face a skills and recruitment challenge that will be familiar across the economy. As a result, they have turned to mainland Europe in order to recruit senior business leaders. Why? Because the difference in candidate capability is “stratospheric,” said Hannant. She believes the disparity is down, in part, to a lack of investment in training but also a symptom of disjointed strategic thinking. She asked: “Who owns the overall strategy? How do you get all the component parties working together in a more collaborative way?”

To answer the questions posed above, it’s first useful to understand the underlying obstacles that face anyone looking to prepare the workforce of tomorrow. Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, describes “twin forces” of big global economic changes—including emerging economies, automation and other technology advances, and changes in trading patterns such as Brexit—and of demographic change—an aging population working longer with caring responsibilities both for their children and their parents.

A failure to address these forces may help explain why productivity in the UK continues to stall. “We ignore economic productivity at our peril,” said Neil Carmichael, senior adviser at public affairs agency PLMR, and former MP for Stroud and chair of the Education Select Committee. “We’ve got to understand how to train people to be flexible and adaptable but also [train] those who are managing and leading those people.”

So how do we get there? How does the UK prepare for the new world of work? Our roundtable participants suggested five things to do now.

1. Close the esteem gap

Attendees identified two interconnected post-school issues inhibiting growth. The first is the narrowing of academic choices beyond the age of 16. The second is the continued disparity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications. “We’re facing the future with an education system designed on the past,” said Peter Finegold, head of education at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Unlike most other European nations, England allows students to drop maths and English at 16. Little surprise, perhaps, that up to 29 per cent of UK 16-24-year-olds rate at below GSCE levels for numeracy and literacy. “In England, Wales and Northern Ireland we have this big challenge of the effect of the A-Levels which have been around since the early 1950s,” Finegold said. “They are a gold standard that everybody knows and appreciates but they narrow choice.”

Neil Carmichael said that post-16 education is far too structured. “Loosen it up,” he urged to avoid the false distinction between academic and vocational. “We need to be much more fluid, much more flexible.”

“Youngsters at school are not taught practical skills they need for life,” said Sue Garden, a Liberal Democrat peer and government spokesperson during the 2010-15 coalition government. “Schools are getting brownie points for GCSEs and A-Levels but not for their apprenticeship leavers. And those are the skills they are going to need more throughout life.”

Simon Everson is headmaster of Merchant Taylors’ Northwood, a Hertfordshire-based independent school. He offered a theory for why parents continued to favour an academic route through education. “Parents are focused on the needs of their particular child. They are not thinking about macro trends,” he said. “And the schools in which all of this is delivered are set up in a way that is inimical to the kind of broad skills-based education that we need.

“We [teachers] are highly academic people who have gone through an academic process who are now working in a department as a biologist or an English teacher or a mathematician, separate from each other, in a school that is assessed by reductive criteria.

“We try and get our children, if we can, into universities which do not care about the wider skills-based system; they are entirely focused on academic outcomes. No wonder parents say, in this context, ‘Right, I’m going to be reductive myself. Why should my child be the one that goes on this apprenticeship when those children are going off to university and I know that’s safe?’”

“But is it safe?” countered Gerry Berragan, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education. “Given that 50 per cent of children go to university means that not all of them are going to get graduate jobs, so how safe is it to take that route?”

“The reality is you may be better off doing something vocational and doing something to the level below but better paid than having a lower quality degree.”

Everson accepted the point, noting that architecture, medicine, law and engineering are vocational in nature. Nevertheless, the education process remains biased towards the academic. “Maybe a way to break that logjam is to demonstrate that there are very high skilled and aspirational jobs that are better accessed through apprenticeships,” he ventured. “If you want to code you are much better off being in a company doing it than taught it in university by someone who last did it 20 years ago.”

Berragan noted that one group of companies—the Big 4 Four accountancy firms—were putting their faith in non-graduates and reversing a recent trend in the process. “The previous methodology involved taking in 2,000 graduates and two years later spitting most of them out. It was hugely wasteful and not very effective for the business because [most of the graduates] weren’t suitable and it was a dispiriting experience for the graduates themselves.” Today, up to half of trainee accountants are apprentices. The retention rates are higher, the firms gain an extra four years of their careers and the employees start earning fees for the firm after just one year. “From an efficiency and productivity point of view, it’s a massive gain,” he said.

2. Close the gender gap

There are disparities elsewhere. Not least between the sexes. Accordingly, four-fifths of engineering graduates are men. Similarly, 70 per cent of technology and over 60 per cent of physical or environmental science graduates are male.

In an effort to confront stereotypes and encourage greater female participation, Coca-Cola showcases two of its female engineers. “We roll them out to schools and colleges in order to show the alternative and demonstrate how successful you can be,” said Sharon Blyfield, HR Business Partner at Coca-Cola European Partners.

Vicky Pryce, chief economic adviser and a board member at the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), suggested schools need to be transparent about the opportunities open to female pupils in traditionally male-dominated arenas. “I don’t think our careers service really helps,” she said. “Nobody explains what you can actually earn … When you explain, [the pupils] are astounded.”

3. Professionalise careers advice

“This information asymmetry is a huge market failure,” she added, warming to the theme of inadequate careers advice. “You are making choices on very bad information. And that really has a long-term impact on productivity.”

Others shared Pryce’s misgivings. “Careers is falling apart in education through lack of funding,” argued Simon Everson. “Because I’m at an independent school I can put money where I like but I know working in the grammar school sector … it was hand to mouth. It’s getting worse just as the more it’s needed.”

Peter Finegold agreed. “There really isn’t a cultural tradition among teachers in this country to take responsibility for careers. There’s been a massive article of faith that young people will come off the conveyor belt and somehow it will work out.” By way of best practice, Finegold pointed to work by John Holman, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York, to establish eight benchmarks of good career guidance. These include: linking curriculum learning to careers, encounters with employers and employees, and experiences of workplaces.

Experience of the workplace isn’t just of benefit to the student—it benefits those teaching, too. That was the view of several roundtable contributors including Sue Garden, the Liberal Democrat peer. In conversations with former education ministers, she recalled, “I was told that teachers need to be in the classroom not to be outside developing their own professional skills—a luxury we can ill afford. For their long- and medium-term development, it’s probably valuable for every STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] teacher to spend a week in another environment learning how things are done elsewhere. And learning a little bit about modern industry, not least that the people who are valued in these companies don’t necessarily have a university degree.”

“During the coalition government, I was part of Michael Gove’s education team and I was the only person around the table who had ever been a teacher or with any knowledge of FE and vocational skills,” added Garden. “You’d get briefed by civil servants and I’d mention NVQs [National Vocational Qualifications] and they’d look at me opened eyed.”

4. Bring all interested parties together

The disconnect that exists between politicians and academics is evident elsewhere, too. Peter Finegold suggested that everyone involved in the intersection between education and work is looking for something slightly different. “Employers are looking for skills; parents are looking for security [for their children] and are, as a result, risk averse in supporting change; and young people are trying to imagine themselves into an unknown and uncertain future.”

The challenge, therefore, is to bring these interested parties together so they are all pointing in the same direction. “Business needs to know more than it does and it needs to share more than it does,” said Neil Carmichael. On a visit to a Porsche factor in Leipzig, Germany, he was encouraged to find that the firm’s supply chain included schools, colleges and universities. It’s a model that should be copied elsewhere, he said. “We’ve got to get our businesses to think about what is the most important thing they should invest in. And start realising they’ve got to connect to it.”

Exposing pupils to entrepreneurship is another way of bringing school and business interests closer together. Vicky Pryce pointed to research that suggests that exposure to entrepreneurism fuels children’s own ambitions— twice as much for girls compared to boys. “The evidence is there that this kind of engagement works,” she said.

To this end, Simon Everson wants to establish an entrepreneur-in-residence at his school, most likely by bringing in a start-up company from the Google campus. “It might work, it might not, but it’s worth a try,” he said. “There’s lots of things we can with local businesses and we should be challenged to do so because we tend to look inwards as schools.”

Perhaps evidence of this tendency to look inwards comes from Sharon Blyfield at Coca-Cola. When she offered work experience to schools, only 50 per cent took up her offer. “I’m pushing on a closed door,” Blyfield said.

5. Don’t forget the adults

Much of the debate centred on those leaving full-time education but Stephen Evans urged roundtable participants not to forget the importance of adult training. He noted that three quarters of the workforce that will be in place in 2030 has already left full-time education. In a report published in March—“2030 vision: Skills for economic growth and social justice”—the Learning and Work Institute forecast that the UK’s skills profile will continue to decline as we approach the end of the next decade. Or to use Evans’s analogy—“We’re in relegation form rather than pushing towards the Champions League.”

The decline is in part down to money. “Our spend on adult education has roughly halved in the last 10 years or so and, not coincidently, participation has almost halved,” said Evans. But there are other factors at play too, he argued. Notably, many adults surveyed by the Learning and Work Institute didn’t see the point of further training and education. This presents a “massive engagement challenge.” Further, there’s a delivery challenge—namely, how you provide training that works for someone with an existing job, mortgage and family to support.

But those—employees and adult students—who can make it work, insist the results are impressive. At Merchant Taylors’ Northwood, Simon Everson has used the apprenticeship levy process to provide training for 250 support staff. “They love it,” Everson said. “We’ve been able to tie it to career progression and to [salaries]—and that’s created a culture of learning and aspiration.”

Not only do adult students embrace training, they are more demanding, too. “They come in expecting a completely different level of service,” noted Gerry Berragan. “That’s really unsettling for the academics who’ve been used to a generation of undergraduates coming in from school who aren’t very demanding.”


Returning directly to the questions posed by Lee Rowley and Joanna Hannant, Stephen Evans said: “The future is unknowable so we’ve got to be prepared to be flexible. And what prepares you to be flexible is literacy, numeracy and digital skills.”

For Garden, it is essential that specialists, not generalists, shape future strategy. “I’d like to see education policy taken out the hands of politicians and put in the hands of educators,” she said. “One of the big problems [in government] is churn. You get a new minister who comes in—and because they’ve all vaguely been educated, they think they know about it, they come with bright ideas.”

Finally, Neil Carmichael touched on the UK’s likely departure on the European Union. “If Brexit is going to do any good at all, the one thing it might do is remind us that if we don’t pull our socks up, we’re going to really suffer.”

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