The UK government’s Skills for Jobs white paper is clearly an attempt to realign post-16 education around the needs of employers. It presents a challenge for higher education to develop an agile curriculum offer that enables employers, career changers and lifelong learners to develop the higher technical skills required to meet the needs of the local economy.
The UK Skills Mismatch in 2030 report (Industrial Strategy Council, 2019) highlights the results of an employment survey which shows that 83 per cent of executives from UK firms believe that the lack of access to the right skills is the number one threat to the competitiveness of the UK labour market (CBI, 2018).
Considering that the white paper has highlighted the need to invest in education for over 30 million people already in the workforce, surely a more flexible employer-led funding methodology is required to ensure that staff can rapidly develop the skills required according to the immediate demand needs of their occupation.
I fully endorse apprenticeships, and I am excited about the contribution that higher technical qualifications will bring to industry. The full awards for both routes offer opportunities for new and existing staff to develop higher-level skills but, due to other constraining commitments, these are not always compatible for all members of staff to commit to. For example, against the backdrop of Covid-19, research by care provider Bright Horizons (2020) shows that employees with caring responsibilities fear the loss of flexibility when working patterns start to return to pre-Covid-19 norms.
‘The government has an opportunity to allow apprenticeship funding to be used to provide the skills needed on a demand-led basis.’
It is significant that the Skills for Jobs findings were developed within the framework of a white paper, because it suggests that there will be new legislation to realise the stated commitments. This is the government’s opportunity to respond to local needs through genuinely reducing complexity with the apprenticeship system, and to seize the opportunity to move away from a funding model that is ringfenced for just apprenticeships. Instead, there is an opportunity to allow apprenticeship funding to be used to provide the skills needed on a demand-led basis.
It is not just employees that are calling for more flexibility. The Confederation for British Industry’s Learning for Life report on ‘funding a world-class adult education system’ states that most employers are not able to use the levy to upskill or retain workers because apprenticeships have to last at least a year, whereas most employees only need ‘top-ups’ in their knowledge development (CBI, 2020).
This is highlighted in the UK Skills Mismatch in 2030 report, which states that an employee could be overskilled relative to their occupation in some areas, yet underskilled in other areas of their role (Industrial Strategy Council, 2019). Moving towards an innovative employer-led funding methodology, such as the ‘flexible skills and training levy’ approach suggested by the CBI (2020), will provide much more flexibility for employed individuals to acquire specific skills to meet the immediate demands of the industry, without the long-term commitment and investment from accessing vocational training through a programme of study.
The government appears to recognise the need to rapidly address the shortage of skills by launching employer-led digital bootcamps that provide short-duration advanced training, but this looks to be relatively short lived. In addition, the Chancellor announced in his latest budget a ‘flexi-job’ initiative to start in January 2022; however, this only allows people to work for several employers in the same sector – instead of having to be employed by a single employer – meaning that they can still engage with an apprenticeship (BBC News, 2021). This offers some flexibility, but not to the extent that employers and employees will require to ensure that the UK’s shortfall in skills is addressed.
To conclude, my recommendation is for the government to fully commit to the CBI (2020) recommendations, to trust industry to use the apprenticeship levy to fund more than just apprenticeships, and to provide opportunities for levy funds to be used for shorter modular awards that already exist within the apprenticeship standards. Furthermore, levy funds must be focused on developing vocational skills, and any unused levy contributions should be handed over to chambers of commerce and local authorities to support wider society to develop higher-level skills. Finally, in order to provide flexible pathways through to higher-level skills, further education colleges should also be allowed to receive funding using a similar approach.
BBC News. (2021, February 27). Budget 2021: Rishi Sunak to inject £126m to boost traineeship scheme. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56218054
Bright Horizons. (2020). The modern family index. https://solutions.brighthorizons.co.uk/modern-family-index-2021
Confederation of British Industry [CBI]. (2018). Employment trends survey. https://www.cbi.org.uk/search/?term=employment+trends+survey+2018
Confederation of British Industry [CBI]. (2020). Learning for life. https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/5723/learning-for-life-report.pdf
Department for Education [DfE]. (2020). Apprenticeship evaluation 2018–19: Employers. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/875561/Apprenticeships_Evaluation_-_Employer_Report.pdf
Industrial Strategy Council. (2019). Skills mismatch in 2030. https://industrialstrategycouncil.org/sites/default/files/UK%20Skills%20Mismatch%202030%20-%20Research%20Paper.pdf
Wolf, A. (2011). Review of vocational education: The Wolf report. Department for Education. http://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/180504/DFE-00031-2011.pdf