The Time for the Reskilling Agenda Is Now

Charlie Winstanley discusses the urgent need for a reskilling agenda to properly equip the UK workforce with the tools to prosper in light of Covid-19.

Automation, Automation, Automation. So the mantra may have gone if Tony Blair’s famous 1996 speech were it delivered 20 years hence. However, initial excitement about the transformative impact of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ has dissipated in the context of pandemic-related job losses, furloughing and business closures. It is critical therefore, that we now renew focus on the crux of what Labour’s former leader was addressing at that particular party conference - the enabling power of education - to support our economic recovery. 

The UK has a productivity problem, which sees the country lag behind the rest of the G7 by 15.1% in output per hour worked. Moreover, real productivity growth has been almost static since 2008. Whilst the manifesto following Blair’s speech rightly focused on developing policy for school-age children, in order to avoid a ‘lost generation’, we must now adopt a lifelong learning approach. Automation and other enabling technologies have the potential to remedy our productivity woes, but only if they are complemented by the right skills.

The skills gap in the UK is stark. Job-specific skills present an issue, with 68% of British employers saying they struggled to find skilled workers in the past year. However it is fundamental skills like numeracy where the figures are most shocking - just 49% of the working-age population have the numeracy skills expected of an 11 year old. Skills and productivity issues are exacerbated further at a regional level, with London and South East far outperforming the rest of England on both counts.

On the current trajectory, 20% of the workforce will be underskilled by 2030. With at least 80% of that workforce already working today, we need an urgent action plan.

Firstly, the government must rapidly assess regional skills bases, then identify both strengths and areas for development. This will mean working in close collaboration with local government and community partners to discern the capabilities of their labour force, as well as their preferences for reskilling/upskilling programmes. There should be a key role in this for Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The LEPs have the best understanding of the nuances of their local economies and this should be leveraged to the greatest extent possible when determining individual, local strategies.

Concurrently to this assessment phase, the UK should follow the lead of countries such as Denmark, Luxembourg and Singapore in creating a proactive response. Funding should be made available to businesses to enable training schemes and for SMEs, subsidies to incentivise investment in areas that align to the local reskilling strategy. Individuals should benefit from a lifelong learning passport, providing them with access to financial support for training, with bursaries for those pursuing reskilling opportunities in the sectors of greatest need. 

The UK has a unique opportunity to capitalise on the rapid adoption of online working, forced by the pandemic. The government should respond to this with the creation of a suite of modular and digitally-delivered training courses, available on a centralised hub. Incorporating an online support network, augmented with career coaching chatbots, access to mentoring and job listings, would encourage informed choices and reduce barriers to access.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the government to help the public understand the need to proactively reskill, without causing unnecessary distress. A targeted online and offline national advertising campaign, alongside promotion from job centre advisors and local community groups would provide the necessary direction to both individuals and firms.

In order to avoid worsening inequality and continued economic inertia, it is imperative that the reskilling agenda is given the requisite attention now, so we are in the best possible place to support the country’s post-COVID recovery.

Charlie is a public sector strategy consultant and has lectured as a guest at the University of Manchester. He writes in a personal capacity.
He tweets at @winstanley_ 

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