For my most recent webinar I welcomed CMI Companion Rachel Sandby-Thomas, registrar of the University of Warwick and former director-general for skills, deregulation and local growth at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BEIS); and Euan Blair, founder and CEO of Whitehat, an apprenticeship education provider and fast-growing tech start-up.
On our agenda: skills for young people and for everyone, and how we can build a bolder, better-skilled Britain post-pandemic.
Solve for skills post-pandemic
Britain was already facing a skills shortage, and the Covid-19 crisis has brought that into sharp relief, both my guests agree. Euan: “[It] existed before but it has now become multiple times more acute.” Around 700,000 young people will leave school this year and will need urgent and practical assistance in getting the skills they need.
He likes the idea of the “apprenticeship guarantee” that’s been promoted by prime minister Boris Johnson, but says “it’s crucial we get it right.” That means focusing on emerging skills such as data analysis, software management and business operations. Although the government certainly has a part to play, Euan believes that employers need to work closely with providers and learners. That’s what will make the difference in delivery. “Ultimately, the best intervention is going to be some form of wage subsidy to support hiring,” he says, adding that it’s vital that any offer is “closely aligned to the needs of the labour market.”
Rachel echoes the need to boost employability, but believes that on-the-job training is the essential ingredient. Most employability skills are best learned in the workplace, she says. That said, many of the skills needed at work can actually be picked up at university: team-working and peer learning are employability skills but aren’t always packaged up as such.
We must extend what we mean by ‘skills’ to workplace behaviours and attitudes, both experts say. Euan makes sure that Whitehat’s learners are taught positive behaviours such as managing upwards and having difficult conversations, as well as more formal financial, technical and digital skills. It’s very easy to “muddle up skills, knowledge and attitudes,” says Rachel. During her time at BEIS, businesses “would talk to me about the skills gap, [but] most of the time what they were talking about was attitudes and behaviours.”
There is an urgent need to tailor the skills offer for young people, but both say that all workers need to be included in any retraining initiative. “The solutions are potentially different,” cautions Rachel, with younger people needing work experience but older workers needing retraining. Both are big fans of degree apprenticeships and believe they should be encouraged and expanded. And both are adamant that skills should be future-focused.
Don't reinvent; encourage innovation
Let’s not reinvent the wheel, cautions Euan. “[When it come to skills programmes] you’ve got to look at existing mechanisms like apprenticeships; then free up the funds.” The government needs to provide a ‘north star’ in terms of guiding the direction. Tax incentives and wage subsidies for employers may well be needed and will stimulate demand for learners post-Covid. Better communication between employers, training providers and individual learners will be crucial. Schools should be measured on ‘other outcomes’ such as apprenticeships and job placements, rather than on how many students attend university.
The existing institutions have a crucial role to play, says Rachel. Investment in further education colleges for adult learners needs to be dramatically increased, and colleges need the bandwidth and capability to think beyond survival to offering the future skills needed.
Euan believes there is scope for innovation in the market. “I make a distinction between existing mechanisms and existing institutions,” he says. “Some institutions aren’t organisationally fit for purpose… we need more start-up organisations to drive innovation and share new ideas.”
This lasts a lifetime
“The idea that you do a single shot of learning at the start of your career and that sees you through 50 or 60 years clearly doesn’t work,” says Euan. He and Rachel agree that employers need to chip in more and support training. Coming out of Covid-19, both experts want employers to advance the lifelong learning agenda – “so that everybody needs to be doing some sort of formal learning at various stages in their career,” says Rachel.
Blended learning is the way forward, they both say. It delivers “the best of both worlds.” Universities should stick with the online exams and assessments that they introduced so quickly post-lockdown. Similarly, in work “some meetings work much better online,” says Rachel. “They are quicker, people contribute who never contributed before, they’re cheaper and greener.” That said, people still need the comfort of face to face, whether that's the buzz of being on campus or the “watercooler intelligence” and humour of the office.
Businesses will need to adapt, as will educators, says Euan. “When you’ve returned to a model where some people are in and some are out, and there’s a hybrid, you’re going to have to make adjustments.” Businesses may need a ‘remote first’ approach to how they run meetings. Video-conferencing software will need to be available for all in the background.
Whether you’re a new graduate, furloughed or redundant employee, we all need to be bold about the future, say our experts. “You have shown remarkable resilience which you are in danger of not recognising,” says Rachel. “Uncertainty creates fear, but also opportunity, so seize it… And use your networks… This crisis has shown how willing people are to help each other.”
Euan encourages young people in particular to “give real consideration to what you want to do.” There really are alternatives to university, he says. He encourages us all to learn from the mistakes of 2008, and to invest in people rather than cut back. “Wouldn’t it be great if people around the world look at what the UK is doing and respect the boldness of our economic response? Skills have to be at the heart of it.”
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