Inhibitors to Implementing the Skills Agenda

As a result of the current financial crisis many countries are now considering how to rejuvenate and rebalance their economies. New paradigms need to be developed which in turn will create many difficult challenges for governments and the education system. Many of these issues are associated with the quality and quantity of human capital in terms of knowledge and skills and how to recognize and cope more effectively with the massive transitions in labour markets and the ever accelerating advance in technologies. These challenges differ in magnitude from one nation to another. Many of the causes for skills gaps and shortages have been identified and discussed ad nauseam over many years but still remain largely unresolved especially in some European countries e.g. Britain and France; they include the following:

  • The positive and negative consequences of globalization from micro to macro levels
  • The mismatch between supply and demand and the critical need to match the demands of the economy with the correct skills profile
  • The continuing low skills equilibrium, the continuing failure to elevate the skills of the existing workforce and to increase, improve and raise the levels of the skills of those in vocational and technical education and training
  • Poor and ineffective labour market research which is too often focused on short term priorities as a result of government policy
  • Weak careers information, advice and guidance systems (CIAG) in the education and training sectors especially in schools
  • Lax accountability in schools for vocational provision
  • The reluctance to develop a comprehensive range of high quality apprenticeship programmes especially beyond level 2+

In addition to these factors there are equally critical inhibitors that contribute to the skills problem and these are seldom identified and discussed but are important when attempting to develop new strategies and tactics and include:

  • Some employers place a low premium on the skills possessed by their employees
  • Although some employers effectively identify skill requirements short term they are generally less effective at planning over the intermediate and longer terms
  • The absence of radical and long term skills policy that matches the reforms that are so urgently required in industrial strategies and the vocational curriculum offered in colleges and universities
  • Neglect in recognizing regional differences and disparities in investment in a country too often as in Britain there is a focus on London and the South East. Preference for one region and its economic specialisms can siphon graduates and the more highly qualified people away from the other regions that already have less economic investment and renewal and hence suffer skills deficits
  • The vocational education system is failing; colleges and other training providers are not responding adequately to demand or because of funding issues they are unable to provide the relevant programmes (1)
  1. College funding regimes are based on the previous session’s enrolments i.e. historical rather than forward looking data; as a result it is difficult to respond effectively to future industrial policy changes. The funding regimes also favour high recruiting programmes, in itself symptomatic of lack of focus on IAG and unrelated to strategic market intelligence. This disadvantages many key strategically important programmes which are orientated to scientific, technological and mathematical disciplines-the very ones that will be essential in the future.

The fact that some employers are indifferent to the quality of employees’ skills profile is a worrying feature as a recent survey highlighted 33% of employers did not possess a business or training plan let alone a training budget for their employees. Therefore many employers continue to recruit low skilled people and in many cases paying them low wages which can raise some fundamental ethical issues when they employ immigrants. In also brings into question the quality of the products and services they offer. Countries like Germany and the Scandinavian countries have adopted the opposite approach and recruit highly qualified people whether domestic or immigrant and aim for the high value end of the product chain.

 

The way forward especially for Britain if it is serious about rebalancing the economy and up-skilling the workforce now and in the future is to look at proven good practice abroad e.g. Germany and Scandinavian and urgently introduce a series of measures that must include:

  • Create a more effective labour market information system with robust intelligence to identify industry skills gaps and shortages and intermediate and long term skills challenges
  • A greater focus on establishing a flexible labour market, encouraging and supporting flexible and part-time employment
  • Support for lifelong learning including CPD programmes for employees especially for SMEs
  • Place a high value on working partnerships between employers and education and training institutions
  • Support to employers to encourage an enlightened demand for higher level skills
  • Establish a high quality, robust and up to date foundation of skills in the education and training system including a greater emphasis on high quality vocational and apprenticeship programmes,
  • Require all levels of education – secondary to FE and HE to work more closely with industries
  • Strengthen the accountability of schools for vocational provision and decouple it from the school- leaving examinations and hence link it more significantly with post-16 vocational curricula; namely remove the primary focus on a school-leaving certificate and expand 14-19 vocational programmes in schools and colleges
  • Devolve powers to the regions so that they can develop their own priorities and industrial strategies that recognize and exploit local strengths and resources and hence play their part in the national economy.

Dec 2012

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