When it comes to skills, Britain needs to do better.
Our current laissez faire approach to skills – leaving employers to their own devices – simply isn’t fit for purpose. If this country is to thrive in tomorrow’s global economy and if we are to build a fairer and more equal society, then we have to change.
Although there may be a few welcome signs of recovery around, our economy remains smaller than it was before the crash. And the turbulence of the past five years has further undermined our poor skills record. According to the 2011 National Employer Skills Survey, nearly half of the UK workforce received no training from their employer. This is a shockingly big jump from the 37 per cent figure seen before the slump.
The Chancellor likes to talk about the importance of the global race but we seem completely ill-equipped to rise to this challenge. Competing not just with America, Japan and Germany, but China, India and Brazil too; our shortfall of basic, intermediate and technical skills is our Achilles heel.
Just two weeks ago, the OECD published its latest report on Britain’s skills performance. The report showed that as a country we’re good at higher education but fall short in other areas. There is a significant training divide and we have relatively poor literacy and numeracy amongst our young adults. The report also highlighted how skill levels are disproportionately influenced by social inequality.
From the trade union movement’s perspective, skills are not just the tools with which we build our national prosperity but they’re about equality, social mobility and social justice. And that’s why we need change. The voice of working people really needs to inform policy. Government, business and unions need to work together to improve our skills base and deliver learning opportunities for all. We need a new policy agenda and a new, more imaginative approach to skills. That’s what we in the trade union movement have long campaigned for and today’s unionlearn annual conference was proof that the trade union movement’s work on learning and skills goes from strength to strength.
But we now need to take that exciting work to a new level and I see three central priorities for us.
The first is to promote a social partnership approach to skills. A systematic drive to put skills right at the heart of industrial strategy and with a collaborative approach to policymaking, in which unions and workers play a full role. This will ensure skills policy and industrial policy are properly integrated and aligned.
The government’s new Industrial Partnerships – new bodies bringing together employers, unions and others, with a remit to improve skills development in different sectors – certainly present opportunities for us.
Secondly, we need to take learning to the most disadvantaged groups: people struggling with literacy, numeracy or basic IT; older workers out of the classroom for decades; migrants for whom English may be a second or even a third language; and part-time women in low-paid jobs. Taking learning to the most disadvantaged and most marginalised groups of workers has to be hardwired into skills policy.
Lastly, our third core priority must be to improve the opportunities available to all working people. Skills are too important to be left to employers alone. Last year, trade unions helped 220,000 people access learning opportunities and worked with employers to create 5,000 new places on apprenticeships.
Improving opportunities for workers; taking learning to the most disadvantaged groups; promoting a social partnership to skills. These are the priorities we must now advance if we are to build the right skills base to deliver the industries of the future.