Posted : 1 months ago by Mandy Crawford-Lee

Apprenticeships and Skills Future Policy – UVAC OPINION

Apprenticeships and Skills Future Policy – UVAC OPINION

A Focus on Apprenticeships and Skills Programmes for Young People will not Cure the UK’s Economic Ills 

Low productivity, economic inactivity and low economic growth, the weak state of the public finances and the transition to a net zero economy will be key challenges faced by any incoming government.  Appropriate apprenticeship and skills policies will be required to deal with each of these challenges, with government needing to lead activities to tackle labour supply issues and skills shortages and gaps, in order to raise productivity and economic growth.

Bizarrely however, when apprenticeship and skills policy is considered, an argument often made is for the need to focus on young people and lower level skills.  Take the recent report from the Learning and Work Institute Flex and match: A new Skills Levy for growth and opportunity[1] which argues for a greater focus on young people and apprenticeships up to and including level 3.   

By definition, a focus on one cohort means less focus on and resource for another.  It is worth noting that five of the ten degree apprenticeships with the highest take-up are for key public sector occupations, police constable, registered nurse, advanced clinical practitioner, teacher and social worker[2].  These are occupations that politicians and the general public will see as a priority for investment. Do organisations such as the Learning and Work Institute really want to restrict the ability of the NHS to spend its levy payments on degree apprenticeships for registered nurses because those taking them may be aged over 24 and nursing is a high skill occupation?  

In reality, as I suspect, both Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak know a comprehensive ALL age and ALL level approach to apprenticeship and skills is needed if government is to tackle the UK’s economic ills and deliver high quality public sector services.  For good measure, the following arguments make it very clear why an ALL age and ALL level approach is essential:

  • Economic Inactivity – Right in the middle of the election campaign The Times[3] using ONS data reported on the 12 June that the number of economically inactive working age adults hit a record high of £2.8m. Uniquely in the G7, the UK’s inactivity rate has increased since before the pandemic.  The Times goes on to note that this problem is costing the economy £39bn through labour and skills shortages.  Any organisation that doubts the need for an ALL age and ALL level apprenticeship and skills programme should reflect on this £39bn figure.

There are many reasons for the country’s inactivity rate.  Supporting young people in the NEET group (not in education, employment or training) to become economically active is important.  At the other end of the demographic scale large numbers of over 50s have left the workforce since the pandemic.  This army of ‘silver’ workers could make a massive contribution to the economy at all levels.  They must however, be enticed back to work and where needed retrained.  In between younger workers and the over 50s there are vast numbers of individuals who don’t work due to health, transport, childcare and other issues.

Tackling economic inactivity will be a massive task for Rachel Reeves, the current shadow chancellor and Liz Kendall, the shadow work and pensions secretary, or in the event of an election upset, their Conservative counterparts.  Government will need to use a range of policies to reduce economic inactivity, fiscal, welfare, childcare and transport policies to name just four areas.  Skills programmes however, will be of fundamental importance and will be needed to support a large proportion of the economically inactive of ALL ages to enter or return to the labour force.

  • Skills Shortages and Skills Gaps – Arguably the most prominent skills shortage in the UK is the registered nurse, a level 6 bachelors degree occupation. In 2023 there were 47,000 nursing vacancies[4], representing a record high nursing vacancy rate of 11.8%.  Nearly 27% of NHS nurses are from outside the UK.[5]   Shadow health and social care secretary Wes Streeting has said it is “immoral” to reply on foreign workers.  Others, with justification, would highlight skills shortages in care, in digital, in the new net zero industries and in a range of other sectors.

Without doubt the most prominent skills gap in the UK concerns management skills.  Indeed The World Management Survey[6] suggests that more than half of the productivity gap between the UK and America can be attributed to poor management practice. Finally, anyone concerned with skills policy needs to remember the crucial issue that a poorly skilled 30 year-old employee has 40 years of poorly skilled, low productivity work ahead of them.  Training and apprenticeships must not just be for young people.

The new government has a choice.  In the development of skills policy, will it overly focus on young people and lower level skills?  Alternatively, will it develop an ALL level and ALL age skills policy focused on making England a high skill, high productivity and high-income economy.  Will government ensure public sector employers can use apprenticeship and skills programmes to train the highly skilled professionals, police constables, registered nurses, social workers and teachers needed to deliver high quality public services?  Can employers tasked with delivering the net zero economy have an assurance from government that the all age and high level skills apprenticeship and training programmes that they need will be available?

[1] Stephen Evans, Flex and match: A new Skills Levy for growth and opportunity, Learning and Work Institute, June 2024

[2] Billy Camden, Degree-level apprenticeship spending hit half a billion last year, FE Week, 5 May 2023

[3] Mehreen Khan, More than nine millions people economically inactive, says ONS, The Times, 12 June 2024

[4] 13 November 2023

[5] Eleanor Goldberg, Is immigration harming the NHS?  NHS Confederation, 8 December 2023

[6] John Van Reenen and Nicholas Bloom of the World Management Survey, quoted by the CMI

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