By Neil Bates, Managing Director of employee-owned skills specialist Seetec Outsource and Chair of the Edge Foundation
Accessing learning and training during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been straightforward, so it is no surprise that Department for Education data shows apprenticeship starts dropped by almost half during the first lockdown.
This is just one example exposing the fragile situation our communities face in confronting the new economic and social reality caused by the pandemic. These unprecedented times call for a new way of thinking.
Developing new skills is one route to recovery but, like all sectors, skills providers and employers have had to adapt to the new environment. There is strong cause for optimism in our sector’s swift response in switching to digital learning methods.
Last September, the Government set out its commitment to post-18 education training with the Lifetime Skills Guarantee to boost productivity. Giving adults greater access to free college courses is a step forward, but it must be part of a wider set of measures.
As we approach National Apprenticeship Week (8-14 February), with this year’s focus on ‘Build the Future’, we have an opportunity to address existing weaknesses in our technical education and skills system and re-focus for the future.
The Government’s recent Skills for Jobs White Paper set out a positive direction of travel. It was heartening to see an emphasis on employers, plans to invest in technical qualifications and handing providers greater autonomy to deliver a first-class skills system.
The White Paper provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to future-proof the skills sector. I urge the Government to seize the opportunity to deal with the fragmented relationship between the employment and skills system, and ensure regions have more scope to respond to gaps in further education provision.
It must also end the false competition between technical and other academic institutions to establish a more level playing field. If the Government wants a ‘world-class skills system’ to rival those of Germany, Finland and Holland, we need radical action to deliver this.
Seetec Outsource is currently developing its new Education and Skills Strategy and I believe this is a microcosm of what the Government needs to do. Strengthening the employer voice is essential, alongside setting national priorities for skills programmes which address the needs of key sectors and more regional autonomy to meet localised needs.
Building ladders of progression is equally crucial, starting with school leavers and addressing a lifetime of learning with transferable skills at the heart. The much-anticipated Devolution and Recovery White Paper is likely to signal that combined authorities will gain further control of their local skills agenda as the Government looks to level up communities. Driving the Northern Powerhouse agenda is key to this.
Alongside a focus on the overarching national skills strategy, more time should be taken to look at how apprenticeships are being delivered on the ground. The Government’s incentive payments for employers to hire new apprentices will continue to help, but Ministers need to go further.
To develop a truly employer-led skills system, the UK needs regional knowledge centres, similar to the professional skills lighthouses established in Denmark, to ensure vocational education keeps up with labour market developments. In Denmark, these cover sectors such as automation and robotics, the digital trade, design and architecture.
These centres would forecast skills needs and be involved in continuing professional development programmes to ensure technical teachers can keep pace with technology and changing working practices.
To have a world-class system, we must have better recognition and development of the professional status of the technical teachers who deliver it, both in further education colleges and independent provider settings.
Currently, it is possible to teach in further education without a degree-level education and without a teaching qualification. We need an affiliated professional body for these mission critical professional teachers through the establishment of a national institute. Establishing a national institute could also help to improve recruitment and retention.
The importance of skills providers, especially independent providers like Seetec, is not fully recognised. Not only are they key to delivering the more diverse skills base needed post-Brexit to compete globally, they also play a vital role in building cohesive communities.
In Seetec’s case, our status as an employee-owned business which also delivers employability and justice services, provides an added wraparound service that achieves significant social impact.
In Greater Manchester and Liverpool, for example, our ESOL academies help non-native English speakers to develop their language skills sufficiently to integrate into their communities and boost their job opportunities.
Seetec is targeting key sectors where it has significant expertise to enable it to build high-quality career progression opportunities which support both employers’ skills needs and economic recovery.
In transport and logistics, where an ageing workforce of large goods vehicle drivers is a significant threat, our Warehouse to Wheels programme trains warehouse workers as large goods vehicle drivers. Simultaneously, through Seetec’s employability programmes, new warehouse operatives are recruited, creating a bridge into employment.
Another key sector where high level skills shortages threaten economic growth is aviation engineering. Seetec is working with key employers to develop an innovative programme and institute providing apprenticeships up to degree-level.
A skills recovery is in our grasp if a closer partnership can be forged with the Government and employers to ensure clear sector and geographical priorities – providing a levelling up of regional power and further reinforcement of the need for parity between technical and academic education.