Skills for the Future – Is the current agenda valid?

Skills still seem to be a top priority for the government, but are the strategies and policies being developed correct? Lots of resources e.g. human, time, and  financial, (this last is now affected by the constraints of the financial crisis) seem to be expended on developing a number of frameworks and models to address the current problems associated with skills shortages and gaps among people already in employment and those wishing to enter employment. But will the current efforts to create flexible enough frameworks and models resolve today’s challenges and those in the future, particularly in the volatile global financial scenario?  Such turbulent times require radical decisions, strategies and policies. However reading the multitude of policy statements, research papers and reports from innumerable task groups the lessons from past attempts to resolve skill shortages and gaps seem to have been overlooked and forgotten to a large extent. It’s the classic case of political and historical amnesia with lots of people and organisations rushing to jump on the band wagon without any real depth of understanding or resultant analysis of the complex factors in play. At present the fallout from the global financial crisis will demand a fundamental rethink of the skills agenda.  One of the first budgets cuts in difficult financial times is the funding of training both at government and company levels. The country is bankrupt with personal and corporate debt standing at 300% of GDP so little chance of sufficient funding for post-16 education and training – what money is available will go of schools. In spite of a favourable exchange rate manufacturing declined by 12.8% in January 2009  adding a  £1 billion deficit to our exports. As unemployment rises during the current recession/depression companies can be even more selective in their limited recruitment campaigns having a pool of qualified unemployed people to draw from.

Recent developments have also highlighted the dangers of building a skills strategy based on a supply of qualified workers from overseas. Interesting to note that many qualified Polish workers e.g. plumbers are returning to Poland having reckoned that their own country offers a more stable economy than that of the UK including taking into account the poor exchange rate between the pound and euro – a matter which also indicates that an urgent rethink about Britain’s entry into the Euro is long overdue!

This last factor shows the fragility of depending on immigrant workers to fill skills shortages and gaps. The issue of using overseas workers either through immigration or by directly poaching qualified workers, particularly from the developing world, raises fundamental ethical questions. This is especially so when recruiting medical and paramedical personnel from countries who educated and trained these people from their very limited budgets only to see the UK and other countries poach them. Britain should not be saving money through short-sighted cuts in its education and training budgets. Australia has already decided to grow its own timber by reviewing and reforming its vocational programmes.

A number of possible key questions arise that include:

  • Are the emerging skills strategies and models in this country sufficiently flexible and sufficient in scope to cope with the rapidly changing global labour markets and all the required skills?
  • Are the very complex issues associated with the rapidly developing technologies, innovation and technology transfers being properly addressed in the current skills agendas? How can education and training programmes keep abreast with these rapid changes? * (An important aside -obviously there will be a need to produce skilled workers in traditional crafts and skills associated with such areas such as restoration and heritage activities).  BUT there is an ongoing, urgent and essential requirement for responding to the future needs arising from technological advances?   
  • Are the current developments sufficiently sensitive to the subtle dynamics associated with skills e.g.  rapidly emerging new technologies and applications of science?
  • Are the consequences of demographic changes fully appreciated and planned?
  • Is sufficient attention being focussed on up-skilling and cross-skilling the existing workforce? With a declining young population older workers are even more important and must receive equal attention in training and CPD programmes.
  • Is sufficient attention being given to the involvement by informed employers,  workers and their representatives in developing a flexible model for the skills agenda or are the current policies for representation mere tokenism?
  • Is sufficient attention being given to global competitiveness and the challenges of market advantage that will require flexibility, rapid innovation and a high degree of diversification when developing  policies, strategies and tactics for skills?
  • Is sufficient attention being given to the higher levels of skills i.e. > level 3 or will the focus continue on the lower levels of skills i.e. level 2? After all many countries particularly in the Far East are addressing the need for the higher levels as well as giving equal attention to the essential lower skills.
  • Is there sufficient urgency about current skills development? Leitch time lines 2020 – perfect vision but this is far too leisurely compared with many of our major competitors. 

The list is by no means complete but attempts to illustrate the many complex interacting factors that most certainly require an urgent rethink and their impact on the skills agenda. As an earlier article in the ‘t’ magazine (1) so excellently stated Skill is a slippery, complex and dynamic concept. Any national skills strategy MUST recognise these facts and it must not be driven by accountants, bureaucrats and questionable political myopia. To resolve the long standing problems radical solutions are urgently required!

I hope this article will trigger a debate in the magazine.


  1. “Skill-a slippery concept” ‘t’ magazine. August 2008.

March 2009.

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