May’s strategy ‘steps up’ on skills – but is it high enough?

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese has responded to May’s post-Brexit industrial strategy blueprint with a call for more clarity on skills policy.

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Underlining the importance of the regions to her industrial policy for a modern Britain, Theresa May unveiled the government's industrial strategy green paper in Cheshire yesterday. The government sees the UK's regions as the likely source of the UK’s lost productivity and forms a key plank of its skills agenda.The consultation opens up a wide-ranging exploration of ten, interdependent pillars of Britain’s new industrial approach, which aims to shape Britain’s future and “build a stronger, fairer country for everyone,” Mrs May said.Favouring a more interventionist approach than past administrations, the government outlined its plans to "step up" and take action.

Skills and the industrial strategy

From a skills agenda perspective, the green paper, Building Our Industrial Strategy, which is open now for consultation, seeks to address the UK’s challenge of its relatively poor performance in delivering people with basic and technical skills to the labour market, and the subsequent “increased reliance on migrant flows. To this end, plans to create a new system of technical education form a major element of Mrs May's skills policy.The paper also gives notice of schemes to be announced in the Spring Budget. These are likely to include projects to retrain people in communities most affected by economic changes. This, the government believes, could go some way to supporting people who will lose out to technology if estimates that 35 per cent of UK jobs, mainly low and mid-level, will become obsolete in the next 10-20 years.

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Lifelong learning investment lacking

The strategy promises an additional £4.7 billion by 2020-21 in R&D funding – another of the wider industrial strategy's key pillars – and £170 million of capital funding for technical institutes as part of the government’s new approach.Peter Cheese, chief executive of the professional body for HR and people development, responded to the skills aspects of the consultation by saying it “overlooks the need for significant additional investment in lifelong learning,” and that investment in skills needs to be far broader.“Provision for adult learning (age 19+) measured by achievements has been cut by 25 per cent since 2011 and today’s announcement does nothing to reverse this decline,” said Mr Cheese. “Greater investment in lifelong learning is crucial to allow workers at different stages of their careers to up-skill or re-skill in response to automation and advances in technology, especially as people will be working for longer.“The future of work is rapidly changing. If this is to be a truly modern industrial strategy the government must focus more attention on how people can develop transferrable or new skills that will help them to adapt and flourish and secure the UK’s status as a true talent hub.”

Growing more jobs for STEM graduates

Mr Cheese further said he believed the consultation does not address the lack of suitable roles for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates when they enter the workforce.“Once again the strategy looks to expand the provision of STEM skills in the UK, but fails to recognise that one of the obstacles to addressing this is that too many existing STEM graduates don’t go into the occupations or industries that demand these sort of qualifications,” said Mr Cheese. “Until we address this problem, as well as do more to identify the core skills that make STEM subjects so valuable, additional investment in STEM risks being wasted.“More broadly on skills, we welcome the increase in investment in technical education, but we question whether adding another layer of complexity to the education system by creating new institutes of technology is the best way of doing this.“Re-focusing part of the existing higher education system to developing technical skills would make more sense, particularly when employment outcomes for many graduates in subjects such as social sciences, arts and humanities are deteriorating.”

For related news and features, see our human resources section.

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