Opinion: Liberal Democrats must prioritise skills development

One of the depressing facts that came out from last week’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on poverty is that only 1 in 5 of low paid employees have left low paid work completely ten years later.  Also in the news recently were reports of severe staffing shortages of skilled staff in several sectors including construction and health/social care, leading to major recruitment drives overseas.   There is a real problem with skills development in the UK.

There are several reasons for this.  Since the recession companies have cut back on investment, and that includes training.  The increase in outsourcing in our public services has had an impact; some private providers have good long term training programmes, whereas others take a much more short term approach, particularly if they are fighting to win government contracts on cost. Another cause is the rise in self-employment – 15% of the UK working population is now self-employed compared to 13% in 2008.  Many of these self-employed are rehired to their original organisations but without many of the benefits including a training budget.

What can be done? The government’s apprenticeship programme, a high priority for Liberal Democrats, is a step in the right direction, though the quality of the training given can be variable.  Government has a lot of power through its own procurement and it should demand that as well as paying the living wage, contractors offer both top rate apprenticeship schemes as well as in-work training programmes for longer-serving staff.   Government commissioning teams should also look very carefully at companies that use high proportions of self-employed staff.

Trade unions also have a role to play.  At their best trade unions can work with management to create long term skills development programmes.  This is much harder in today’s fragmented jobs market, where trade union membership is low.  This leaves employees without a voice, which contributes to the low pay, low skills environment that so many people face.  In my view Lib Dems should embrace membership of responsible trade unions as means of shifting power back to employees.

There is no doubt that the country’s desperate need for new housing, the challenge of retrofitting existing homes to make them energy efficient together with the health and social care needs of an aging population will continue to provide skilled job opportunities and we need to encourage young people into these areas.  To do this we need better careers advice at school.  Michael Gove’s rush to withdraw funding for the Connexions service was misguided and careers provision is now very patchy.  There is a clear role for a careers service that is aligned to local and regional development priorities, working alongside both private and public sector employers.  Careers advice should start early in Year 8 or 9, so that children choose options that will support either an academic or vocational route.

One of the fundamental Lib Dem values is to enable every individual to develop their potential.  We need to ensure that people are not stuck in dead-end jobs, and that skills are developed to match the needs of the growth sectors of our economy.

* Cara Jenkinson is Vice-Chair of Haringey Liberal Democrats and PPC for Enfield North

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  • Thanks for raising this important subject.

    We have a very odd view of post-school education in Britain. Basically it’s university or, um, well, university. There used to be polytechnics as well but Blair turned them into, you guessed it, universities.

    Of course, that’s not quite true. There have always been other paths but they suffer from being very specialist or low profile, disorganised and confusing to pupils, parents and teachers alike not to mention of very variable quality as mentioned so the default is always universities. It defies belief that a type of institution that once catered for 10% (5% or less if you go back far enough) can cater appropriately for +40%. We wouldn’t support a one-size-fits-all policy elsewhere so why in post-school education?

    The response ought to be a burst of institution building to create (kick start if you prefer) a number of trade bodies – they might be called guilds – that would be responsible for delivering top quality education to apprentices in their field of endeavour using a mix of day or block release and on the job training as appropriate. The model actually already exists in, for example, the various accounting bodies (chartered, certified, etc.) that are immensely successful and cost efficient at delivering training to reasonably consistent and well understood national standards.

    One advantage would be that much smaller companies could provide training packages than tends to happen now. Another is that if the employer paid the cost in the first instance and recouped it from government after the successful passing of each module then the employer would be highly motivated to support students and the taxpayer would fund only successful outcomes.

    This would of course be a market mechanism instead of the purely Soviet system we have now where the Minister (or perhaps the Treasury) decides how may apprentices we need and in which disciplines, then pays for it without any firm idea of likely outcome.

  • Oh, for goodness sake – the frustrated voters in this country have been screaming it at you for long enough.

    What is the point of a company training a young person when they can hire a ready-trained person on a lower wage from another country.

    Why did our city councils give up on training our youngsters and send out agencies to bring in a cheaper workforce.

    Freedom of movement in the EU is the one agreed policy within our political parties – it’s a bit late to suddenly find that there are a set of people out there who don’t actually gain from this.

    You’re not going to upend this policy so save the hand wringing.

  • Cara Jenkinson 2nd Dec '14 - 10:57pm

    wg – the EU have made it pretty clear that freedom of movement is integral to EU membership. So if we want to stop freedom of movement, we need to leave the EU. And that will mean leaving the single market with bad consequences for the UK economy and jobs – skilled and unskilled. Freedom of movement does not have to mean that our government, councils and companies turn their backs on training the UK workforce – it’s that attitude that leads to a rise in support for parties like UKIP.

  • David Evershed 3rd Dec '14 - 12:55am

    The problem with low paid/low skills starts at school. Once children fall behind at primary school with reading and sums it is hard to catch up and demoralising. Poor parenting may also contribute.

    Once such children get to secondary school, the lack of discipline and disruption by students has also made it hard to devote sufficient time to remedial studies.

    Without basic skills with reading, writing, arithmetic and speech make it hard to absorb and adopt work skills.

    The solution is better schooling and parenting of those who will otherwise fall behind.

  • Great IF you actually do so. I’m sick of Politian’s saying our people don’t have the skills so with have to get foreign workers. The Politian’s are the ones who failed then its they who set the education rules / agenda and fund education so You the ones who filed not the people.

  • I note made a spell / word error above with should be WE after skills so

  • Paul Reynolds 3rd Dec '14 - 10:43am

    Thanks Cara..and ‘GF’. Both excellent.

  • wg, it isn’t handwringing, it is one of the most important issues in British politics. Let us for the sake of argument assume that UKIP succeed in taking us out of the EU without flushing the UK economy down the drain. It’s a stretch, but whatever.

    Even if they end free movement of labour, they have no real answer for the skills shortage. They simply assure us that without foreigners getting in the way, the days of easy jobs for everyone will be back. But, we will still lack the skills.

    Why would a firm then choose to remain in a deskilled, mismanaged UK economy?

    Opposition to free movement merely hides the issue – even if British people can be sheltered from competition at home, our economy will still have to compete abroad. Without serious work on reskilling and investing in our workforce the choice will be between imported labour or exported jobs.

    The other point you raise, about wages being undercut, is more important. Equal pay for the same work is the only way to make things fair, and I must admit that probably the best way to make sure we get that is to have better unions.

  • Thanks to Cara Jenkinson for drawing attention to this latest Rowntree report.

    A couple of killer facts that David Eveshed should pay attention to given his comment in another thread about “unsustainable pay rises” —
    1– average washes are falling, relative to prices.
    2– for the lowest paid 25%, pay went down by 70 pence per hour for men and went down by 40 pence per hour for women.

    I look forward to the time when the party leadership is once again informed by Rowntree.

  • We need to understand History. The aristocratic right contempt for industry up to 1945 was replaced by a middle class left wing ( most 1960s types) contempt for industry. The massive expansion of universities in the 1960s resulted mainly in the expansion of social sciences and humanities , not engineering- read A Sampson A of Britain 1982 .

    Up to the 1850s , the Industrial revolution was created by numerate craftsmen. It was the development of the chemical industry in Germany in the 1850s which needed chemistry and higher mathematics: most chemical plants work best at high temperature and pressure and often uses volatile chemicals: make mistakes it blows up ad kills people. The development of electrical engineering in about 1900 also increased the need for higher mathematics.

    Britain failed to produce enough craftsmen, technicians and engineers who could cope with higher mathematics ( calculus) . The winding down of the Empire meant the end of many markets, especially the Lancashire Cotton Industry which sold to India .

    In the 1980s , what took a YTS motor mechanic 2 years to achieve was done in 6 months by a German . By the 1970s , 60-70% of the union members were un and semi-skilled . Much of the heavy industry was over manned with un and semi-skilled workforce. The development of electronics enabled control systems to replace vast numbers of un and semi-skilled people started in the 1960s and took off in the 1980s. Union leaders such as Jordon and Laird of AEU and Chapple and Hammond of EETPU understood the impact of technology. By the 1980s , ten draftsmen could be replaced by 1 cad technician. Electricians replaced printers on newspapers.

    In the 1970s an apprentice e earned approximately £25/wk while the unions insisted 18-18 years old working as unskilled were paid as adults which was about £50-100/wk. The un/semi-skillled unions kept up salaries while crafstmen/foremen were suppressed: a electrician foremen told me he only earned 15% more than someone semi-skilled. Many electricians in the mines went overseas and became foremen and earned far more.

    From the early 1960s there was a massive brain drain of craftsmen, technicians, scientists and engineers going overseas because skill and responsibility did not pay in the UK . Demarcation disputes between unions were often between craft and un/semi-skilled unions.

    The closure of evening schools where top craftsmen studied for their Part 1 and 2 ( degree standard ) exams meant they could not move into engineer roles without taking 3 years off work to study for a degree. Many top engineers (Mitchell -Spitfire, Chadwick – Lancaster, Wallis -wellington, Bouncing School) left school , became apprentices and studied for chartership at evening school.

    The complexity of tax laws means that accountants get faster promotion in companies than engineers . Many chartered engineers who had to deal with union leaders such as Robinson at Bl advised their children to become accountants after graduating in engineering.

    Historically an apprenticeship was 5 years with two extra years to become a master. Three years is not apprenticeship ,it just makes one a semi-skilled operative. Bring back 5 year apprenticeships, close down most new universities which do not teach vocational subjects which employers want and ensure all apprentices can study degree level subjects at evening school. Tell people that while an employer is spending money training them , they are worth very little. When a craftsmen tool maker with 5 years post apprenticeship training or more, is teaching an an apprentice, it is costing a company money. An apprentice needs good maths and English and a willingness to take criticism: they are entering an adult’s world and in some industries , a careless attitude will cost lives. Too many school leavers cannot cope with working out of doors in winter and when they make a mistakes and called BU by the foreman, they fall apart.

    A major reason for low pay is competition for un/semiskilled work. Due to shortages ,good bricklayers can now earn £40k/yr. If we move increasingly to off-site construction, then the need for un/semi-skilled work will decline even further.

    What needs to be done is ensure all school leavers have at least grade C in maths and English GSCE, have the physical and mental toughness to hold down a job and obtain at least a NVQ3 .

  • I agree with tez. The politicians have failed big time. That’s all parties and going back to at least the first half of the 19th century. Education has always been regarded as a burdensome overhead – an expense to be avoided or minimised whenever possible so we’ve traditionally lagged badly behind continental competitors like Germany despite a steady stream of Commissions etc. by the Great and the Good identifying the problem. This is basically a reflection of the Conservative point of view that just about any spending (including investment) is best avoided which is why the Thatcher/Major years ended up with such a huge backlog of infrastructure spending to make up.

    I also agree with David Evershed that once children fall behind it’s very difficult to catch up but we should ask why so many just aren’t motivated at school. In my case it was simple; I went to a traditional grammar school and always knew that I was aiming for university so that gave me – and by extension, my parents and teachers – a clear idea of what I needed to do. But, had my inclination been less studious and more practical with no reasonable prospect of university no-one involved would have known what I should be doing in school.

    So, I think having a post-school alternative to university orientated towards vocational skills is absolutely crucial to making schools right down to primary work better. And before anyone gets the wrong idea about ‘vocational’ remember that medicine and accountancy are vocational subjects. We need new qualifications to cater for a wide range of abilities (on academic, practical and other spectra) with tough intake requirements that, on a horses for courses basis, will really put schools on their mettle since every pupil, even the dullest, will have something they can go on to.

  • Apologies for typos, my earlier comment should have said —

    A couple of killer facts that David Evershed should pay attention to given his comment in another thread about “unsustainable pay rises” —
    1– average WAGES are falling, relative to prices.
    2– for the lowest paid 25%, pay went down by 70 pence per hour for men and went down by 40 pence per hour for women.

  • Pay is proportional to what someone earns and competition for that job . A German car worker can earn $41/hr. Germany has moved from low and medium value engineering into high value engineering and Britain needs to follow- Dyson has explained this in a report for the UK government.

  • Helen Tedcastle 4th Dec '14 - 10:11am

    David Evershed
    ‘ Once such children get to secondary school, the lack of discipline and disruption by students has also made it hard to devote sufficient time to remedial studies.’

    We cannot keep blaming schools for a low wage-low skill economy. Children are not the finished article when they leave school at sixteen or even eighteen. Employers and the CBI have spent years/decades running down our schools while businesses cut apprenticeships and providing poor training – if any.

    By the way – it’s not ‘remedial studies’ but Special Needs. We should not be assuming such children are always disruptive either. In my experience, cocky middle class children whose parents don’t think they can do any wrong, are pretty disruptive, while the child with special needs is quiet and withdrawn.

    Cara Jenkinson is right – skills and vocational learning is not appreciated sufficiently by Lib Dems, although Vince has tried to address apprenticeships in BIS. He understands the need for skills better than a Tory party which put the elitist Gove in charged of education in 2010. Unfortunately, there are Lib Dems who think Gove was right to prioritise the needs of the most academic children over children with different potential.

  • Charlie – Thanks for your very useful historical overview of a long and sorry history of neglect. It really is quite astonishing how ALL political parties just don’t get it and never have yet in the NE where I live there are regularly reports by industry groups like the chamber of commerce saying that we need many thousands of engineers that simply don’t exist merely to replace the baby boom cohort who are retiring over the next few years. That’s before any allowance is made for growth nor does it factor in what I suspect to be the case but can’t prove – namely, that many existing “engineers” really aren’t the brightest; some are little more than moderately competent CAD operatives. Translation: the government’s economic plans are pie in the sky and won’t happen.

    We should get back to the traditional plan and make many, perhaps most, apprenticeships 5 years basic plus an extra 2 years to achieve ‘master’ status. Part of the final two years could be devoted to training in business skills for those interested in developing their own business in trades where this is relevant. However, I would avoid talking of ‘degree-level’ equivalences for two reasons. Firstly, it plays straight into the traditional degree-obsessed habits of the UK system and, secondly ‘degree-level’ (assuming that ‘degree’ here has anything remotely like its traditional meaning) simply isn’t suitable for all so that presupposes continuing de facto exclusion for the lower half or three quarters of the population in terms of academic ability (and academic ability itself isn’t the only or proper measure).

    To return to my earlier example of accountancy the top qualification option is generally assumed to be chartered but others are breathing down their neck, especially certified and management accountants and all are degree-level and. Although each qualification is slightly different with is own distinct emphasis, the differences between them in both subject matter and level are smaller than the difference between a good student and a poor one. Yes, this is a rare case – perhaps the only one where competition works in an education context. But … there are also less academically demanding qualifications for those that want – courses for instance for accounting technicians and these can and do lead on to higher qualifications for those who have the motivation to continue their studies. All industrial and commercial sectors will have equivalents.

    One final important point. In his/her first year most apprentices are very little use to their employer. Their productivity is low PLUS they take an immense amount of skilled craftsman and management time. So to be meaningful, funding should cover this as well as wage costs and this will be a big number – perhaps 75% of the apprentices employment cost in the first year falling to 25% in the second and nothing in the third as he/she starts to become more productive. Of course, this should be paid only when the apprentice has passed the formal appraisal to complete an annual module so the risk to the exchequer is minimal – we taxpayers would pay only for results bearing in mind that the abilities of ‘part qualified’ (PQ) staff will be well understood where it matters within an industry sector making them potentially very employable.

  • GF
    Thank you for your comment . I think the aspect which is ignored and is therefore the hidden reef. is cultural. When Lord Brown was at Cambridge in the 60s , reading Physics, we was looked down at for joining BP and going into industry rather than academia. The aristocratic right contempt for industry up to 1945 was replaced by a middle class left wing ( most 1960s types) contempt for industry.

    In the 60s , Wilson made Cousins of the TGWU,( an un/semi-skilled union) minister for science just as electronic controls and computers were being developed. One of the major obstacles to the introduction of CAD/CAM were the un-skilled unions because jobs and union dues would be lost.

    One of the hopes are the development of university Technical Colleges . I think many students find school tiresome: too many teachers are emotionally immature, : all they have gone is from middle class suburban home /school to university to school. Teenagers leaving school and going to a UTC and learning from staff who have worked in business/industry . After all Michelangelo started an apprenticeship at 14 and finished by the age of 21. GF your idea of 7 year apprenticeships ( what used to be the case) ideal. Attendance at night school where maths, physics, chemistry, CAD and business would be taught would enable technician levels of training to be achieved. I think the days of a craftsman are nearly over , what is needed is craftsman skills and technician( NVQ3 to 4/ ONC to HNC) level education training. The development of building information modelling( the Uk is a world leader), radio frequency identification and off site manufacturing in the construction is going to greatly reduce the need for craftsman in many buildings but will increase the need for technicians: a similar change will occur in most f high value manufacturing.

    When it comes to training apprentices perhaps they should pay? In the 19C an apprenticeship involved the apparent paying £5 and the signing of a contract between employer apprentice and parent. The apprenticeship was a formal agreement which defined what each party had to deliver. John Major hit the nail on the head when he said the top 15% of Britain is world class, the problem there is a very long tail and the bottom 30-40% is very poor for a developed country.

    When it comes to degrees we have now achieved what the USA had done by the 1980s : world class science and engineering from MIT or Stanford to mickey mouse arts degrees from very poor universities . For the UK think science /engineering at Cambridge/Imperial and a media studies degree from some ex college of higher education. The reality is that someone who has achieved a NVQ3-4 is far more useful than the majority of arts and social science degrees unless it is from a Russell group university. The reality is that the teaching /lecturing unions are so powerful in the labour party that expansion of much of the university sector since the 1960s has just been job creation and an increase in union dues. What should have happened is the creation of a technical university such as Aston, Salford etc, etc in all large towns, not massive expansion of arts/social science departments. In Germany practically each town has a Fraunhofer Institute.

  • Twenty years ago I was a member of the board of my local Training and Enterprise Council. It was often an Interesting experience and an educational one for me if not for all of the people we were supposed to be helping out.
    Some of the ideas that are being swapped between Charlie and GF in this thread are precisely the same ideas that were being thrown around in discussions in the 1990s. Indeed way back in the early 1970s when I was a bricklayer’s mate people were rehearsing the same prejudices.

    Charlie is in fine form when he condemns every school teacher for being “emotionally immature” before condemning all arts degrees as “mickey mouse”. For someone who speaks so highly of science he has a very unscientific approach to facts, making them up as he goes along in some cases. His fascinating example of Michelangelo starting his apprenticeship at 14 as if this were somehow a blue-print for education and training in 2014 is breathtaking.

    I have listened to such prejudiced ramblings for over forty years. The problem is that government ministers like Gove listened to them as well and believed them. And look what happened when Gove and many of his predecessors tried to put these prejudices into action !

  • John Tilley

    From my years working on construction sites , a common theme is that many teenagers and men in their 20s saw no point in education as they did not see any relevance to their working life. If a pupil comes from a background where the Father has worked in construction or agriculture and they have worked from the age of 14 or even earlier in such industries , then they may consider some teachers emotionally immature. People I have worked said they did not respect teachers because they had gone from school to school( many considered university a glorified school ) to school without going into the world of work. George Orwell pointed that many working class boys wanted to leave school at 14 and teachers have pointed out that when the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 , many parents and teenagers were against it.

    The reality is that teenagers from the age of 13 or so find book learning extremely boring unless the teacher can show it’s practical application. A teacher explaining experimental error has little chance of interesting most children but one who can describe the importance of this subject due to their industrial experience work may have a chance .

    y my time in rural comprehensive which was a former secondary modern many boys become indifferent to education from about the age of fourteen years. What is noticeable is that once on a construction how many men who indifferent or even antagonistic to aquiring knowledge, become enthusiastic once it’s purpose can be shown to be useful. In the Netherlands pupils can leave school and become apprentices and the academic learning continues through day release.

    As well as the end of evening school education for chartership /external degree exams , many thin and thick sandwich courses have stopped. When it came to mechanical engineering , the Part 2 exam of the Inst’ of Mech’ Eng’ was often considered harder than many degree exams , partly because one those setting it was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of Rolls Royce ! The exams set by all the Institutes of Engineering ( Civil , Mechanical ,Electrical, etc, etc) were set and marked by top practising engineers. It is now very difficult to sit chartership exams through evening study so it means people often have to leave work and attend university and therefore reduces options for career advancement.

    The apprenticeship scheme undertaken By Michelangelo is still relevant today . A cousin completed a five year apprenticeship in painting restoration before starting a degree in fine art . Having cleaned and restored pictures by great masters, gave my cousin experience which even the lecturers lacked and made them feel rather awkward. Being an artist requires a great knowledge of materials and also how storage and age may affect them . Painting on canvas, wood, paper and whether one uses oils.pencil, chalk or water colours, requires knowledge of many techniques. A sculpture who uses Carrera Marble will be using the same marble used by Michelangelo and therefore will face the same challenges in carving it.

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