Reskilling Britain in a crisis - RSA

Reskilling Britain in a crisis


  • Future of Work
  • Employment
  • Adult education
  • Skills

With unemployment set to rise and masses of jobs in hospitality and entertainment at risk, the UK will need to redistribute its workforce to new and productive sectors.

Yet it's clear our system for reskilling and retraining is not fit for purpose. We’re diving deep into this subject, to understand how we can reinvigorate adult learning in the time of Covid-19.

Labour market in crisis: the urgent need to reskill

“Post-18 education in England is the story of both care and neglect,” wrote Philip Augar in his review of post-18 education. Care, for the 50 percent of young people who go on to higher education; neglect, for the rest.

The Augar review was published in May 2019, a time when the UK had seen nearly a decade of deep cuts to vocational further education. The result of all this was a 23-year low of in-work adults participating in education, with just 33 percent of adults having taken part in learning in the previous three years, and nearly 40 percent having undertaken no learning at all since school. Worryingly, those with the most need to upskill – those with no or few qualifications – were consistently the least likely to do so.

Skip forward to today and the labour market is in crisis.

Jobs and industries that were once stable are now, according to the Treasury, ‘unviable’. The only certain prediction is that this winter will be a tough one for many, who may suddenly find they have no prospects in the industries that they have trained to work in.

We’re also contending with the longer-term risk of automation, a coming challenge forecast for years. Our recent research has found evidence to suggest that automation is being accelerated by the pandemic. Public health considerations, changing consumer preferences, and an increased cost of labour – all as a result of the pandemic – have already caused shifts towards a more automated “touchless” economy.

There is a real and present need to improve how we retrain and reskill adults, both now and in the long run.

What is the government doing?

In late September, Boris Johnson used a rare prime ministerial address on a non-Covid policy to set out his plans for transforming the adult skills and training system, from April 2021. The first main point being that all adults without a Level 3 qualification (equivalent to A-levels) can receive free training to gain one. Second, that the funding and study of Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications (equivalent to higher national certificate and foundation degrees respectively) will be made more ‘flexible’, meaning primarily that courses can be done in modules across several years.

The attention given to this area of policy, and the clear desire for change at the heart of government, has been broadly welcomed. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that this was the “most optimistic” he had felt about the further education sector in a long time.

Certainly, supporting individuals to undertake a Level 3 qualification is a big plus for those currently without one. As is the greater flexibility in the delivery of courses, as time commitments are one of the main barriers for those in work.

However, the government’s proposal has some major gaps. The following three big issues need to be addressed.

1) Free Level 3 training may not be enough

Level 3 qualifications can often be a golden ticket to a promotion within many non-graduate careers, as it is a common pre-requisite for higher paid jobs in social care, childcare, construction or trade roles. It is therefore welcome news that those without a qualification can now attain one for free.

However, this policy will clearly not help everyone. 63 percent of adults already had a Level 3 or higher qualification in 2014, and many of those facing potential redundancy because of Covid-19 or other factors will be in this 63 percent.

Is it fair to ask people who already have a Level 3 qualification, but have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, to pay for their own reskilling to gain work?

It is also not clear why the government has waited this long to introduce a comprehensive training plan. Potential learners must now wait until April to start training. An end-of-year spike in unemployment has been predicted for months.

2) People will need more than just loans to incentivise upskilling to Level 4 and Level 5

In 2013, the government made an austerity-induced switch from grants for adult learners to ‘Advanced Learner Loans’. Within one academic year this switch caused a drop of 31 percent in uptake on eligible courses. In an age of increasing need for adults to learn and upskill, policies put in place did the exact opposite.

Loans for adults are off-putting, particularly for adults who are low paid and therefore have more to lose. This is especially true when positive outcomes of training are not consistent or not well known. University education is generally correctly understood to improve lifetime earnings. The same cannot be universally said for vocational routes, where rumours of poor-quality training and employers not valuing many vocational routes are common.

Better quality courses, better advice, and better known outcomes would all help improve uptake, whichever way courses are funded.

3) Outcomes for learners are best when employers, authorities, and providers work together

To produce better quality courses, and qualifications which have a clear route to improved careers, employers need to be a greater part of the picture. There are of course many examples of good work employers committing to train and upskills their employees. However, employers in the UK spend only half the EU average on training.

The apprenticeship levy was an attempt at improving a sense of ownership of employees’ skills, and at bringing up investment in training among large employers. Yet, employers bemoan the inflexibility of the system - in part a response to the rise in poor quality apprenticeships in the early 2010s - and there is still nothing aimed at small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Better systems need to be in place to support and encourage employers to train their workers.

There are some positive examples of locally-led and collaborative efforts to ensure high-quality outcomes for workers. One such example is the Black Country Skills Factory in Dudley: a successful collaboration between colleges, training providers, and employers (partly coordinated by the local authority) to deliver employer-led short courses in higher technical skills. However, success stories like this need to become far more common.

The future of adult learning

The issues raised above do not have easy solutions. Getting this right will take a huge amount of thought, vision, and input from all stakeholders. The first step is a commitment to the issue, which it appears the government has made. The next steps are to understand the challenge and then to gather ideas on solutions. This is where our Future of Work programme will be dedicating its energy in the months ahead.

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