Sunday, July 15, 2018
Give young people the skills - or they won't do the job
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles


My regular column is available to subscribers on This is an excerpt.

For British business, the question of skill shortages, never very far away, is now a pressing one. Though the government’s EU white paper failed to spell it out – detailed proposals on immigration are expected later in the year – Britain’s labour market after Brexit is likely to be less open to EU migrants than in the past.

That has yet to be negotiated, and it may be that the government will have to offer concessions. But the situation is already changing. The ready supply of EU workers, needed to fill key gaps, including gaps in skills, is already tailing off. Over the latest 12 months there has been a 28,000 drop to 2.29m in the number of EU workers in Britain.

Such workers account for 6% of employment across all sectors and regions, and are particularly important in some. Official estimates show that 13% of workers in London are EU nationals, a proportion rising to 28% in the construction industry.

Many people say to me that, if indeed we are heading for a future in which the supply of skilled EU migrants will be restricted, as well as those who perform less skilled tasks such as fruit picking, the solution is to better train and equip our own people, particularly young people.

While the unemployment rate is at its lowest since the mid-1970s, it still equates to a jobless level of 1.42m. There are 808,000 young people (16-24) who are Neets – not in education, employment or training – and that number has started rising again.

On the face of it, however, at a time when we should be boosting the skills of young people – and the rest of the workforce – we appear to be heading in the opposite direction. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy in April last year, a measure heavily criticised by business, has been associated with a sharp drop in new apprenticeships, not an increase.

Data for the first three-quarters of the 2017-18 academic year show 290,500 apprenticeship starts, a drop of 34% compared with the figures reported at this stage for 2016-17. The Institute of Directors says that without reform it will be impossible to meet the government’s target of 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020. Apprenticeships suffered with the sharp decline in manufacturing in the 1980s and it is not clear whether the current model is the answer.

When it comes to technical education, and equipping young people with the skills they need in a modern economy. Britain has arguably had a problem for even longer. As early as the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, shortcomings in Britain’s technical education in comparison with Germany were being noted. A century later, the 1944 Education Act, brought in by R.A. Butler, envisaged a tripartite system of secondary education, with grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools. But technical schools were always the poor relation, and many local authorities chose not to open any.

Lord Baker, who as Kenneth Baker was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – giving his name to the “Baker days” of in-service training for teachers which were not always welcomed by parents – has been a tireless campaigner for technical education in Britain. There have been many times when that campaigning has run up against the preferences of those in power for academic education, including the period when Michael Gove was education secretary in the coalition government.

Baker has not stood still. His Baker Dearing Educational Trust, set up with the former senior civil servant and Post Office hear Lord Dearing, has pioneered the introduction of university technical colleges (UTCs), whose mission is to help grow the “talent pipeline” by providing “the next generation of engineers, technicians and scientists”. There are now 49 UTCs, with approval just granted for a 50th, in Doncaster, the result of a collaboration between the local chamber of commerce and the two universities in Sheffield.

I accompanied Lord Baker to the South Bank Engineering UTC in Brixton. Like the other UTCs, its provides technical education for students from 14 to 19. And, though many students were occupied with exams on my visit, it is unlike other schools. The students all wear business dress, were engaged in a range of collaborative projects and on the premises had access to and were using sophisticated design and engineering equipment, including 3D printers. They work with and are in demand from local employers.

Though the record of UTCs has been far from perfect, in part because they do not fit the traditional Ofsted blueprint, Baker points to the record of those students leaving them. In 2017, 97% of 18 year-olds leaving UTCs went on to additional education, work or apprenticeships; 2% took gap years or left the country and only 1% became Neets. That compares with an overall Neet rate of more than 11%. The average graduate earns less five years after graduation than a Level 5 apprentice two after completion, he notes, and the graduate has the millstone of student debt hanging around his or her neck.

It is a start, and the UTCs are a good thing, but much more needs to be done. Many fewer subjects that will be essential to Britain’s future in creative and digital industries are being studied in schools. Figures from Ofqual show that since 2014 the number of GCSE entries in design and technology have fallen by 42%. Entries in computing and ICT (information and communications technology) are also falling. The number of entries for A-level engineering have collapsed, to just 10 across the whole country.

The government wil argue that it is responding with the introduction of new T-levels, technical qualifications with parity of esteem with A-levels. Last week the first 54 colleges to offer them werer announced. The first course will not begin, however, until September 2020, and then only in a limited range of subjects. It is not clear whether what the government describes as “the most significant reform to advanced technical education in 70 years” will meet the needs of students and employers.

For business, Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, says that what is needed is a change of attitude in the department of education, and among teachers, most of whom go straight from university and into teaching, to vocational education. Teachers should, he says, spend time becoming familiar with business, and its needs. He is right, and parents should also be taught that the academic route is not always to right one for their children.

It may be that in the future Britain can continue to rely on importing people from countries where technical and vocation education is better. But it would be unwise to gamble on it. And it would imply a continued waste of talent and potential.