David Gallagher, NCFE

The role of lifelong learning in the evolving employment landscape is finally getting the recognition it deserves, but without the means and motivation, will individuals really be able to seize the opportunity? 

Six months ago, I shared my thoughts on the long road ahead to post-pandemic economic recovery, and concerns over the long-term impact on people’s employment prospects.

As life slowly returns to some sort of normality, the labour market is also slowly recovering, with job vacancies at their highest level since the onset of the pandemic and the unemployment rate falling slightly to 4.8% in the three months to March 2021.

However, we know that the employment landscape in the UK is rapidly changing, and the increase in vacancies is reportedly causing concern among employers that they could face staff shortages.

This is just one illustration of how important skills and training are in economic recovery, and therefore the key role that the education system plays in providing learners with the skills that employers will need. The Government has been vocal about its plans to transform post-16 and adult education as part of its ‘Build Back Better’ agenda, with the recently announced Lifetime Skills Guarantee focused around providing the skills that people need for high quality jobs and opportunities to train throughout their lives.

While it is reassuring to see this commitment to post-16 education and to helping more people get the skills to access employment, we must not be complacent. It will take a sustained effort, appropriate funding, and continued collaboration between the education sector, employers, and the Government to deliver on the promises of the Skills Bill.

Now is the time for employers and the education sector to work together more closely than ever, aligning provision with employability needs to create a more productive, fulfilled, and fairer society.

Spotlight on skills - The Skills Bill will support people to upskill and reskill throughout their lives, improving their employment prospects and addressing sector skills gaps 

The CBI published research last year that revealed 90% of workers will need new skills by 2030, and spending on adult education would need to be increased by £130bn by 2030 to narrow the skills gap. The recently unveiled Skills Bill shows that the Government is starting to take seriously the commitment needed to level up the playing field in education; highlighting how lifelong learning through further education is vital to the country’s recovery. This recognition is long overdue, and the economic impact of Covid-19 has served as the catalyst for much-needed reform.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the new legislation is “the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all. We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs. I’m revolutionising the system so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.”

This is nothing new to those in our sector who have championed technical education for decades, and while we are encouraged to hear the Government’s plans around the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, we would like to see it go further. In many areas, I feel it’s a half step in the right direction, with more to do, but a half-step forward never-the-less. It is welcoming to see the Government acknowledging that giving people access to skills training they need to secure employment in such a dynamically changing labour market is key to a prosperous economy.  

The Skills Bill promises that adults across the country will have the chance to retrain in later life, albeit through the provision of a loan entitlement, helping them to gain in-demand skills and open up job opportunities. It will also realign the system around the needs of employers, so that people are trained for the current and future skills gaps in key sectors such as construction, digital and manufacturing. 

Obviously, we welcome the increased emphasis on skills-based learning and the value of further education, but we need to look at the fuller picture. The Government continues to be focused on academic and technical skills, rather than acknowledging that other drivers – such as confidence and a sense of purpose – are crucial in changing lives.

To address that, we are continually growing our provision in areas such as learning to learn, mental fitness and wellbeing, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking. We have engaged with employers on the development of these courses, to ensure that individuals have all the meta skills they need to be successful in the labour market, whatever changes and challenges they are confronted with

By nurturing the mental fitness, confidence and resilience of learners, we can support people to be in the best possible mindset for study and work, so that they can make the most of all the opportunities that come their way.

Spreading opportunity - A positive move by the Government to put post-16 education and skills at the heart of their ‘Build Back Better’ strategy 

The Government has ramped up its commitment to protecting, supporting, and creating jobs. It announced the launch of new schemes and additional funding worth up to £30bn as part of its Plan for Jobs, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak stating the importance of ‘giving everyone the opportunity of good and secure work’ and pledging that ‘no one will be left without hope’.

We welcomed this acknowledgement of the need to support people from all backgrounds, locations and circumstances into training and work. Our vision is a world where everyone has the right and opportunity to access the highest quality learning experiences, and we must look at the factors that will prevent some individuals from benefiting.

Flexibility, funding, and a range of options will be required to ensure that all adults in society can access the learning they need, when they need it, to progress in learning and life.

The Government’s Kickstart Scheme, announced last September, set out to address the impact the pandemic has had on young people, with a programme to give hundreds of thousands of 16 to 24-year-olds the best chance of getting a job. Through the £2bn scheme, the Government will cover the wages of 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit through a six-month work placement. The purpose is to directly underpin job opportunities for young people that would otherwise not exist.

Not just any job, but one with a minimum of 25 hours per week, paid at least the National Minimum Wage, and where employers will provide training and support to find a permanent job. This is crucial, because it will allow these young people to upskill as they earn, giving them a stronger starting point.

The Government urged employers of all sizes to hire ‘Kickstarters’, and so far around 200,000 Kickstart jobs have been approved in England and Wales. However, only 20,000 young people have actually started work, prompting criticism from some MPs and employers.

20,000 16 to 24-year-olds have gone from not earning at all to receiving a wage, and that is great. It is expected that this number will rise now that the economy is opening up, but it remains to be seen whether the scheme can really create sustained employment opportunities combined with training. A similar scheme which operated in response to the 2008 crash did deliver positive returns, but 20% of participants were no longer in their funded job after 24 weeks. Additionally, only 2% of jobs lasted longer than 26 weeks – the required duration of placements.

Meanwhile, the Restart scheme will give enhanced support to universal credit claimants who have been out of work for at least 12 months, helping them to find jobs in their local area. We are extremely keen to see this scheme succeed in getting people of all ages into work.

A number of companies have now been appointed to deliver the plans across England and Wales, and we will be working closely with these organisations to ensure successful outcomes for the individuals the scheme aims to benefit. We believe that Restart is a great opportunity to improve the lives of more than a million people, as long as employers, local government, providers and other partners work together effectively with this common goal.

Reducing the barriers to lifelong learning - The creation of opportunities is not enough, we must also tackle issues around means and motivation to ensure successful outcomes 

Introducing policies, putting money into schemes and appointing organisations to deliver them is one thing, but making them accessible, inclusive and realistic for people is quite another.

Over the past year, the inequalities in our society have become starker, with the pandemic proven to have disproportionately affected deprived communities. Benefits claims have risen most in areas that were already seeing high rates of claims, and unemployed individuals are more likely to experience depression and other mental health issues, which can create a real barrier when it comes to getting back into learning and work.

The Government is providing opportunities for people to learn, upskill and retrain, but without considering means and motivation, these opportunities simply will not deliver the intended value, economically or societally. People need to be able, willing, informed and mentally fit to take up opportunities, whether that is undertaking a qualification, retraining, switching careers or returning to the workplace.

Financially, many people will not be in a position to participate in schemes such as Restart.

The pledge to give every adult access to a flexible loan for higher-level education and training goes some way towards redressing the imbalance between higher education and further education, while helping to ensure that adult learners no longer miss out. But what about those who simply cannot afford to take on another debt? Or, simply do not understand the possible returns on their investment? Those who would need to pay for childcare to enable them to study, or those who spend all their time working multiple jobs to make ends meet?

More must be done to ensure learners from all backgrounds have the chance to participate, examining the barriers to accessing training for those learners who are reliant on benefits, or whose personal circumstances make learning seem unattainable.

The loan offer is a positive start, but the full package of financial and welfare support available – as well as the flexibility of the training available – will be a key dependency of the success of the skills agenda. If the least well-off are still unable to afford to live while studying, the inequalities will widen further.

Motivation is also crucial. Understandably, people who have been out of work for a long time, and perhaps did not enjoy previous educational experiences, may not feel inspired to seize the opportunities available. Perhaps they do not see further learning as a valuable use of their time and money, have lost confidence, or are not mentally in the right place to make a major life change.

Therefore, as a sector, we need to champion the importance of meta skills and mental fitness in breaking down some of these barriers to accessing opportunities. Providing individuals with ways they can build these skills will put them in a much stronger position for embarking on learning or employment.

That’s why we have taken steps such as partnering with mental fitness app Fika, which improves the mental fitness of learners to ensure they can fulfil their potential. Through our partnership, which only began in January this year, more than 120,000 learners at the FE colleges we work with are already benefiting from Fika’s NCFE-endorsed ‘7 Skills of Mental Fitness’ Curriculum.

Opportunity, means and motivation – the Skills Bill absolutely supports the creation of opportunities but all three elements need to be in place in order to maximise human potential and create sustainable, far-reaching and impactful change across society.

Supporting regional recovery - Working with providers and partners to ensure a joined-up approach to the skills agenda 

As well as the ‘Build Back Better’ plans for economic growth in the UK, there are diverse regional needs in many areas of the country that require additional – or different – focus and support. The restructured skills system suggests that local employers will increasingly be at the centre, through the Skills Accelerator programme. There is promise of stronger partnerships between employers and their local education providers to ensure that provision meets local needs in key sectors.

In line with this, we recently launched our ‘Build Back Regionally’ campaign in conjunction with the Association of Colleges (AoC). We have engaged with critical stakeholders in the North East and West of England to better understand the most pressing needs of learners and education providers in those localities, which has provided invaluable insight. This will now inform our collaborative work with the key players in these regions, and we believe that by joining forces we can find solutions to regional skills needs and make a difference.

In our experience, local providers often have a deep understanding of, and connectivity with, local employers and communities. Therefore, we urge the Government to work closely with education providers and employers from across the regions to discover where resources need to be in place to effectively level up the country.

Playing our part

Clearly, it will take close collaboration between government, awarding organisations, education providers and employers to make the ‘levelling up’ agenda a reality, but I feel confident that the further education sector is up to the challenge. Our shared purpose and vision for a world class technical education system, combined with smartly leveraging our collective resources and intelligence gives me real hope that our ambitions can be achieved.

Alongside the many schemes and packages of support that the Government has put in place, we must look at the bigger picture if there is going to be real change. To ensure people can access the education and training available, and that employers can access the skilled workforce they desperately need, there must be steps taken to address the means and motivation aspects.

Flexible options for learning that can fit into people’s lives – whatever their background, age and personal circumstances; financial support that makes education a viable option; and the availability of tools to build their meta skills, will all be essential factors in achieving the Government’s plans.

Driven by our belief of more than 170 years that no learner should be left behind, we are going beyond the conventional role of an awarding organisation to break down the barriers to opportunity, driving collaborative working and developing a coordinated response. Through our collective work, we will not just mitigate the potential long-term impact of the pandemic on people’s lives and careers, but we will strive to provide every learner with the skills they need to obtain high quality and fulfilling work, playing our part in rebooting a thriving UK economy and creating a fairer, more inclusive society.

David Gallagher is CEO of NCFE

Get involved and be part of the change – find out how you can collaborate with us as we work to ensure our provision meets the needs of learners and employers.

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