What can we do about skills shortages? (and what about the clotted cream?)

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At one level the answer (to the first question) is simple. As individuals, our ability to find a job, and succeed at work, depends on each of us having skills that are needed by an employer. As a society our economic well-being depends on a population that collectively has the skills that match current industry requirements. And our future prosperity depends on people using entrepreneurial skills to develop new industries and opportunities for employment.

So our complex education system – encompassing school, further education, universities, adult education and workplace training – should be designed to teach students and employees the skills society demands. One of Government’s roles must therefore be to identify the broad range of skills that are needed, to commission courses in those skills and encourage students and employees to take them up.

So why do we still hear about the skills shortage in this country?

Well, at another level the answer is quite profound. Educators since Socrates have been asking what exactly is the function of education. Is it to teach people specific skills, to provide them with a broad understanding of culture, or to give them an intellectual toolkit so they can become fulfilled as people?

Many would argue that the emphasis in schools and universities should be to provide an understanding of fundamental principles coupled with intellectual curiosity, so that when students enter employment they are adaptable and able to learn new skills throughout their lives. The problem with that approach, in its purist form, is that it is not very responsive to the changing needs of society.

And where does Adult Education fit in to all of that?

OK, I will admit it. All that was just a preamble to encourage you to come along to a fringe meeting that your lovely hosts at LDV are putting on for you in Bournemouth. The topic is Adult Education and Training and how it can relieve the skills shortage.

But please note that it will be starting earlier than shown in the Conference Directory.  It will run on Saturday from 7.45pm to 9pm in the Purbeck Suite in the Marriott Highcliff.

Maybe a list of our speakers will entice you. Vince Cable – yes, we managed to book him before he became our new Leader, and we are delighted that he has been able to honour the commitment. Then Layla Moran – our Education spokesperson. And Chris Fox, our spokesperson for Business and Industrial Strategy. They will be challenged by Joanna Cain from the rather different perspective of the Workers Education Association.

But perhaps all I need to tell you that there will be scones … and jam … and clotted cream.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '17 - 12:07pm

    So why do we still hear about the skills shortage in this country?

    I’ve heard the same phrase for as long as I can remember. If I want a loaf of bread I’ll be struggling to find one for less than £1. Maybe in Aldi, but their cheaper loaves don’t taste that good. So if I’m only prepared to pay 50p I’ll have a shortage. On the other hand if I pay £2 there’s plenty of choice.

    It’s the same with most things. If I want potatoes dug and I pay the bare minimum wage then I won’t have many takers. If I pay a living wage I’ll have more takers.

    Having said that, we should invest in the training of our young people. We should train our own nurses, for example, and fund them with bursaries. But we should pay them properly afterwards. If we don’t they’ll find something else to do. We then won’t have enough nurses, teachers, engineers etc and we’ll start to hear once more about “the shortage of skills”.

  • Skill shortages are having a detrimental effect on the UK’s productivity and this needs to be addressed urgently in order to meet immediate economic and workforce challenges, including those arising from Brexit. The UK faces a particularly acute issue in the thousands of adults who lack English, maths and digital skills, creating a serious barrier to their progression in employment, training or education. This is compounded by the diminishing availability of adult education opportunities and the inequality of access to provision where it does exist. The current level of provision does not support the needs of our economy or our society. Add to this the pace of technological and demographic change and the need for a fresh new approach to adult skills and learning becomes crucially apparent.

    The success and dedication of the Charity Workers Educational Association (WEA) http://www.wea.org.uk/about-us in providing adult education should be acknowledged. The charity is dedicated to bringing high-quality, professional education into the heart of communities. With the support of nearly 3,000 volunteers, 2,000 tutors and over 10,000 members, they deliver friendly, accessible and enjoyable courses for adults from all walks of life.

    Conversely, the lessons of the privatisation that produced corruption, mismanagement and failing standards at Learn Direct https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/15/government-pulls-all-learndirect-contracts-and-funding need to be learnt. The organisation which was privatised by David Cameron’s coalition government in 2011 and is majority-owned by the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank, has said it could collapse into administration if the DfE withdrew its funding, which was worth £158m in the year to July 2017. This is after reports that the company has received £631m of public money since its controversial privatisation. An FT/FE Week investigation found that in the four years since it was sold off, it parent company spent 84% of its cash generated by the operating business, most of which came from the taxpayer, on payments to managers and financiers.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Sep '17 - 2:00pm

    Of course education at all levels and stages of life should help people gain more skills. And specific training is needed for specific jobs and tasks. But for a Liberal education is primarily about education. If people are able to get wide-ranging, interesting and mind and body developing education, they will become more knowledgeable, more overtly intelligent and yes more skilful – as an integral part of being more educated. Education (and the acquisition of skills) should be first about the individual person, and then secondly as a knock-on of being more useful citizens. And this applies for adults as well as young people. As the WEA has shown over the years.

  • Phil Beesley 12th Sep '17 - 2:01pm

    “So why do we still hear about the skills shortage in this country?”

    Why don’t we talk about a shortage of skills training? Vocational training at college or university can only take a student to a level of competency. To become an expert requires something that formal education cannot provide.

    I’d love to see an experiment where one of the high profile companies recruits and trains a cohort of low score graduates, comparing merit/value/contribution after five years with the company’s traditional intake.

  • A policy to cancel all tuition fees for graduates of STEM subjects would be a good start?

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Sep '17 - 5:38pm

    @Sheila Gee

    This issue is very much wider than part of higher education. Tony Greaves, in his posting just before yours, gets it most definitely.

  • Nonconformistradical
    “This issue is very much wider than part of higher education.”

    With respect I didn’t say the idea was a ‘total’ solution, and I fully understand that the problem is wider than part of higher education.
    I’m simply pointing out that if we want ‘home grown’ engineers, chemists, research scientists, and software designers, then why did Liberals + Tories create a £40,000 debt disincentive?

    We need home-grown STEM’ers, so policy direction ought to incentivise home-grown STEM’ers, as a ‘module’ within a wider policy plan for UK skills enhancement?

    The policy outline should be something along the lines of :- Graduate in your STEM subject and commit to working in the UK for a minimum of 4 years post-graduation, and the government will ‘tear up’ your tuition loan commitment.

  • Peter Watson 12th Sep '17 - 8:19pm

    @Sheila Gee “A policy to cancel all tuition fees for graduates of STEM subjects would be a good start?”
    The problem for the Lib Dems with such a policy is that it would undermine the defence of the current system that the party has mounted over the last several years.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Sep '17 - 9:17pm

    @Sheila Gee
    “The policy outline should be something along the lines of :- Graduate in your STEM subject and commit to working in the UK for a minimum of 4 years post-graduation, and the government will ‘tear up’ your tuition loan commitment.”

    Without getting into the detail I’m sympathetic to this idea.

  • No tuition fees should apply to STEM subjects

  • I acknowledge that I am in a minority of one here but the clinging to the hope of “invest in skills and infrastructure” is desperate and wrong. They are following activities not leading ones.
    The first UK industrial revolution did not begin with George III ordering his ministers to dig canals between random towns and set up training courses.
    It began with visionaries like Darby, Boulton, Watt, Trevithick, Crompton, Arkwright, the Stephensons creating a need for infrastructure and specific types of skills.
    I am swimming against the tide but the step we need first, is a new wave of enterprise and ambition, of the sort we see in some parts of the US and in Asia to create the demand for skills.
    The time we are spending discussing skills is sublimation, that is making ourselves busy with something we think will help even though it won’t.
    There is no skills shortage. Any employer who claims there is just needs to pay more and the skills will miraculously knock on the door. They should be told that they can afford this by reducing CEO wages from the currently obscene levels rather than by passing the problem to the taxpayer.

  • The problem we have as a society is we are “jam today”. So we cut corners, fail to invest just so we can have “jam today”. The problem is there is less to cut and the amount of jam we have is decreasing so many in our society no longer get any jam. The ones is receipt of the jam think everything is fine, but at the current rate of jam production they will soon start to experience jam shortages. If you are young you may be able to move to countries that produce more jam but for the old and especially the baby boomers (or as I refer to us, as I’m one of them the selfish generation) the jam shortage is likely to blight our declining years.

  • Palehourse,

    I picked a name at random from your mail.

    George’s first employment was herding cows but when he was fourteen he joined his father at the Dewley Colliery. George was an ambitious boy and at the age of eighteen he began attending evening classes where he learnt to read and write.


    Now if George hadn’t had the evening classes there would have been no Rocket. So actually training counts, genius doesn’t appear from no where.

    Actually I’ll do another one

    In Birmingham in the early 1690s Darby was apprenticed to Jonathan Freeth, a fellow Quaker and a manufacturer of brass mills for grinding malt.[3] Here Darby would have seen the use of coke to fuel malting ovens, preventing the sulphur content of coal contaminating the resulting beer, but also avoiding the use of the scarcer charcoal as a fuel.[

    So again Darby had opportunity as I said genius does not just appear, you need a fertile environment and just hoping something will turn up seldom works (not that stops the British and especially our government from trying that approach).

    As to pay more skills turn up, well yes they do but frequently not with a Britsih accent and that route Maybot wishes to stop.

  • Frankie,
    You are singing my song.

    In one case you highlight the benefits of learning to read and write. I am with you on that. And the second case seemed to involve no state directed skills acquisition at all.

    You are on the right path with “fertile environment” but that is not educationalists thinking up new courses they can deliver it is rather how we use our limited resources to generate that environment. Keep at it the answers are there but not in “courses, yet more courses”.

  • The notion of the romantic heroic innovator is seductive as the answer to our dreams but I’m afraid a tad shallow. You need more than that. I can give you the name of an heroic individual, another George. Like Stephenson he was from the North East.

    When George was four, his father died of miner’s lung aged 28 in 1892. When he was 12 he left school and went down the pit where a coal truck crushed his foot. The union paid his medical fees and clubbed together to pay his wages. As he recuperated he obtained a book on geology and made notes in it about carboniferous structures.

    He eventually got back to work (the pit was owned by the Vane Tempest Stewarts, headed by Lord Londonderry – multi-millionaire socialites – and forbears of the Goldsmith clan).

    By 1926 George had five children- but his wages were halved and his hours increased by the owners after WW1. He was in the General Strike for nine months and two of his little boys died of pneumonia. He was a highly articulate amusing intelligent man – too articulate for his own good – he was refused entry by the owners’ agents after the strike. Fortunately he got work on his father-in-law’s small holding and one of his daughters kept the family warm picking spoil. Lord & Lady Londonderry continued to entertain in Mayfair and Wynyard Hall.

    The point is you can have any amount of heroic genius individuals – but unless you have social justice with state education, a free NHS, support for the less fortunate, and protected workers’ rights you will have a cruel unjust world where the few will dominate the rest of us.

    I’ve still got George’s geology book. He was my hero and I loved him dearly as my Granddad. He was cleverer than me but never got the University opportunities I’ve enjoyed from the post war settlement. Individualism isn’t enough. There is such a thing as society.

  • Palehourse,

    The only song I was singing is if you provide opportunity people prosper. Opportunity seems to be in short supply in Libertarian circles where you think it will pop up as if by magic, it won’t and it doesn’t. Opportunity flourishes where there is infrastructure and planning, that is why the German economy prospers and we don’t. We have tried the laissez faire way and it doesn’t work. We need to invest in people, infrastructure and opportunities and not just hoping something will miraculously appear from the hidden hand of the market.

  • Peter Watson 13th Sep '17 - 1:25pm

    @David Raw
    Thank you for a wonderfully sincere, moving and inspiring post.

  • Frankie,
    You were on the right lines with “fertile environment” ( a term I like), but hoping the state will know which skills and infrastructure investments will pay off is a example of desperate hope over long and bitter experience.
    The statists are arrogant, though, they convince themselves that they do know and come up with gizmo words like “robotics” and “blockchains” wot they have read somewhere.
    Investment in infrastructure and skills, as a means of starting our desperately needed recovery, is money squandered but it does give the squanderers a rosy glow of “doing something” but it actually suffocates that “fertile environment” and distracts from that true strategic aim.
    The state CAN deploy subtle inputs to seed that process, and not leave it to the market, but those measures are about attitude change and not just blindly hosepiping money at those who are the most skilled at convincing politicians that their daft pet project is “the one” (eg Hinkley Point C).
    Germany is a good example. They revere engineering and manufacturing whereas as our politicians sneer at them and despise them (while publicly claiming the exact opposite, of course). When we took those topics seriously we showed the world what we could do.

  • Richard Cobden’s family, although middle class, had fallen on relatively hard times by the time he finished school. At 15 he went to London to train and work in his uncle’s warehouse as a travelling salesman. His uncle, noting the lad’s passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him against “indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life.”

    Cobden ignored the advice studied diligently and started a successful business that prospered. in Manchester. It was from these foundations that he became the well travelled, radical Liberal statesmen that inspired two major free trade campaigns, the Anti-Corn Law League and the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty; and who;s philosophy of Peace, Free Trade and Goodwill Among Nations remains a bedrock of Liberalism today.

  • ”So why do we still hear about the skills shortage in this country?”

    A VERY good question.

    When it comes to the traditional professions – medicine, accountancy and the law – we actually have excellent skills training. The problem is with training in the *trade skills* (a.k.a. apprenticeships) and it goes back a long way – at least to the 1850s and probably earlier. Multiple royal commissions and the like since then have repeatedly concluded that it’s Britain’s poor trade skills that let us down when compared with continental rivals like Germany yet in all that time no government has come up with a good plan. Astonishing!

    The implication is that the British establishment doesn’t care about training provision for the ‘lower orders’ and/or that it doesn’t understand the needs of industry.

    Such apprenticeship system as we did have was destroyed by Thatcher. AFAIK that wasn’t intentional but the unfortunate and fatal side effect of a privatization gone wrong; one that failed to create a viable ecosystem of participants. (I have never managed to find a good write up of this sorry episode. Anyone?)

    In recent years the government has, as it usually does when in a hole, thrown money at the problem egged on by vested interests who scent a honey pot for those with good connections. The result is a top-down monstrosity, not very different from Soviet central planning. I would wager money that the Treasury sees training as a COST – not an unreasonable view with the present system.

    In short, there is no proper institutional framework and, as frankie says, that’s NOT something that will spontaneously materialize by Libertarian magic; it will happen only if and when created by government.

    A good institutional framework would simultaneously enable and incentivize (a) employers and (b) trainees to do the right thing. In other words, a proper system would make training an INVESTMENT for both parties and then decisions about what type and what level of training could all safely be left to those at the coal face where such decisions belong.

    And that, unsurprisingly, is more or less how it’s organized in accountancy.

  • Gordon,
    A welcome contribution but I would make a few points.
    Firstly, medicine, accountancy and the law may not be perfect examples. They strike me as being ‘class exclusionary’. Two of our sons are ACA and we had to help them with funding during their training period. Law is especially bad. Try and become a barrister if you don’t believe me. Medicine, too operates a closed shop for the same reasons to keep salaries high through enforced shortages. If the nation could train another few thousand barristers they would not be able to charge £1,000 a minute.
    I heartily agree that the gov. wastes vast amounts of money by blindly supporting skills and infrastructure and only enrich those who know how to take it from them. Hinkley Point, HS2 and the Garden Bridge to name but three.

    Your point of incentivising employers etc is good but they already are and any decent blue chip will be training properly. The problem is opportunities. I was MD of a responsible company and we trained “Community Apprentices” that is more than we needed to replace our projected retirees. We trained them but had no jobs for them as it was thought to be a good thing but it was hard to justify to the Board when budgets were tight.
    Anyway, we recruited for attitude, not skills, as if the work ethic was right we could train people ourselves
    So my point remains. The skill shortage myth is perpetuated by skinflint managements who won’t pay the rate needed to attract them and think they can bully the taxpayer into providing all the training they should fund themselves. Skill shortage is a handy excuse for Directors and a way to blame someone else.
    What is needed is quality opportunities from new wealth generating enterprise and that is the topic getting no attention when it should get all of it.

  • @ JoeB Interesting you pick out Cobden for mention, Joe.

    It’s often forgotten that during the Crimean War he (and Bright) suffered the same sort of abuse (for opposing the war) that Corbyn J. suffered at the hands of the Tories, and sadly, some Liberal Democrats. In fact, the abuse as we have learned was counter-productive. It increased Cobden’s popularity and eventual return to Parliament. But he was a man of his time and I’m afraid I can’t go all the way with his free market economics.

    @ Peter Watson. Thanks for the very kind words, Peter. You’ll guess who the ten year old lass was picking over spoil heaps in 1926. She was tough but always laughed even when enduring immense anxiety with a young child as her husband flew sorties in 1944/45. I think about her now because it’s just ten years since we lost her.

    I do wish the younger generation would read Harry Leslie Smith’s new book for a glimmering of what happened over the last century and where we are now. ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future: A Call to Arms. hardcover. 14 Sep 2017. by Harry Leslie Smith’.

  • David,
    We aren’t all ignorant of the past century. My paternal grandfather died in 1921 and my father (aged 7) with his two brothers and a sister were raised by their mother, alone, through the depths of the depression mostly by taking in washing, He left school at 14. He told of their struggle to eat and to keep warm. He held socialist views which I respected as he had suffered so much.
    However, wealth has to be created from raw materials and ideas and the people who can do that personally prosper. Left to its own devices the state produces a ten year waiting list for a Trabant car and the Red October plastic sandal factory. True socialism leads to the Soviet Union and Venezuela. China has shown how compromises with capitalism and a rich elite have to be made.
    I have no love of gross inequality but we have to have entrepreneurs and the state can’t just order them to be successful and provide the state with taxable gains. Most creators of mass employment now seem to be in Asia.
    I respect your socialist standpoint but we are not leaving any wealth creating tools for our grandchildren to inherit.

  • Palehorse,

    Each of the traditional professions has its own model for training. I’m suggesting only that they (especially accountancy IMO) offer the basis of a better approach. I once started an accounting course and completed the first year before deciding it wasn’t for me. I was, however, hugely impressed by how efficient the model was and how, with a few tweaks, it could work for trade skills.

    Features of the model I like include that:
    1. There are multiple awarding bodies, each with its own variant – chartered, certified, management, public sector plus a plethora of technician options. The variants each have their own focus but they overlap a lot so there is effective competition. A neighbour did the public sector version and he told me they had really had to pull their socks up because their graduates were losing out to chartered and certified. Result!
    2. Tuition is outsourced to third parties who have to be cheap plus next years’ advertising is
    based on this years’ pass rate.
    3. Qualifications are portable nationally/internationally, not tied to one firm.
    4. Part qualifications have value to both students and employers.
    5. It’s simple to understand/administer and works for large and small firms alike.

    The major tweak required is to funding. Training suffers a classic market failure – ‘free-riders’ sponge off those who train. Government would sort this if it reimbursed costs to employers on a set tariff but ONLY for candidates who successfully completed a stage. Government would then recover the total cost (whatever it turned out to be) the following year by a levy on all employers. That would eliminate free-riders while a certificate from the awarding body would make it easy to police (unlike many past schemes!).

    Employers would have to pick the most promising candidates and then support them (or they wouldn’t recover their outlay).

    Finally, a joiner once told me he didn’t have an apprentice because supervising him would take up to 60% of his time in the first year (much less in the 2nd) which was unaffordable. So the tariff for each course should cover supervisory costs as well as tuition fees.

  • Gordon,
    Good words and I am sure you are right. As I said, two of our sons are ACA and I thought the system was professionally done.
    My interest is still the creation of opportunities. Training for skills where there isn’t a shortage just keeps wages down and leads to frustration and disappointment.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Sep '17 - 3:20pm

    The key here, Mary is to make skills training fun. We should value and reward people who invest in training. A good social component is essential. The more useful the training to jobs the more rewarding.

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