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Vocational skills gaps – time for education reform?

The UK has a huge technical skills gap. Could changing our education system fill the void?

Solving the conundrum of how to deliver a skilled, work-ready workforce has largely baffled successive UK governments for many years, despite various attempts at reform. Frequent changes to government policy and personnel in the last 30 years have left an inconsistent education strategy, according to City and Guilds’ Sense & Instability 2016 report.

Theresa May said ahead of this year’s general election that the UK is 16th out of 20 developed economies when it comes to getting people into technical education. Unsurprisingly then, the Conservatives pledged to deliver a “world-class technical education system”. This included establishing Institutes of Technology (IoTs) backed by employers and linked to universities. The aim is for these to meet the skills needs of local employers, with students able to access financial aids in the same way as university students.

However, companies are feeling the effects of a historic lack of governmental clarity on how to effectively develop a skilled workforce through education and training.

The Open University Business Barometer found 90% of employers struggled to recruit workers with the required skills in the last 12 months. Furthermore, 800,000 16- to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training, according to May 2017 Office for National Statistics data. Brexit has added further pressure, with the ONS figures showing that net migration to Britain fell by 49,000 in the year to September 2016.

With schools apparently struggling to deliver the required workforce skills, experts identify three main ways to address the UK’s vocational and technical skills gap: a more balanced technical school curriculum, improving career guidance in schools, and increasing vocational education through apprenticeships and traineeships.

Back to school

Post-16 training has received the most attention of late – in the form of the apprenticeship levy, the 2017 Spring Budget announcement of T-levels to replace 15,000 technical qualifications with 15 subjects, and the Conservatives’ election pledge to introduce a UCAS-style portal for technical education. However, many would argue that much can be done earlier. Reforming the academic curriculum with a greater vocational focus is still sorely needed, say some, as perhaps a vital first step in fixing the skills mismatch.

“The demand of getting five GCSEs at A to C leaves little space for the development of life and vocational skills,” feels McCain Foods’ HRD Richard Smelt. Manufacturing and STEM skills shortages have concerned him for some time as many of McCain’s staff near retirement.

The company has now completed half of its 10-year programme to grow its own engineering recruits through working with organisations like Scarborough University Technical College. The McCain Engineering Apprenticeship Scheme is a four-year programme of college study and on-site engineering experience. It forms part of an industry-wide approach to help develop future engineers and inspire young people to join the sector. Alongside this, the company is supporting the establishment of the first UK Masters-level food engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University.

When to engage with more vocational learning is hotly contested. Some, like Step Forward employer engagement team manager Rachel Taylor, believe this should occur before GCSEs with interactive sessions and practical workshops incorporated into the national curriculum. These could be compulsory and run in schools by not-for-profit organisations, with additional non-compulsory sessions, and could be regulated by government.

“Interactive employability and work readiness sessions for people aged 14 and up would be a good step forward,” she says. “Not-for-profit organisations currently run these sessions in some schools but they’re far from available nationwide. Trying to incorporate these into a curriculum is a big challenge but having a mandatory element will get the ball rolling.”

Taylor believes that to build a sustainable workforce students should be studying subjects needed 10 to 15 years from now. This would avoid people being educated in preparation for jobs that are currently or likely to become over-subscribed.

Employers, she adds, can play a vital role in working more closely with educators to identify future skills gaps.

Experts agree, however, on the difficulty of doing this in a rapidly-evolving economy and world of work. A study into workplace skills by the World Economic Forum in January 2016 reported that technology is bringing about an unprecedented rate of change in the core curriculum content of many academic fields, with nearly 50% of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree outdated by the time students graduate.

“In an era of rapid technological change it is imperative that lifelong learning is adopted to ensure that companies are investing in valuable skills for the future,” says Tech UK’s policy manager in skills, talent and diversity Doniya Soni.

Gartner’s HR practice leader Tom Handcock agrees: “The solution is not to simply update the curriculum to chase technical needs that companies have. Because education is unable to adapt fast enough and it’s also constantly changing at a rate that’s hard to keep pace with. Employers ultimately need individuals that combine technical expertise or the ability to quickly acquire it, with softer skills like data judgement and the ability to teach and persuade others.”

Servest’s head of talent Lisa Hamill says that encouraging such learning agility is about replacing traditional learning provision (where teachers control the curriculum) with a system where teachers act as facilitators to drive self-directed learning through technology.

“Active learning spaces enable students to gain a greater understanding of a subject and then apply the knowledge in different situations, which is vital for the workforce of tomorrow,” agrees Karen Mosley, director of people at HLM Architects.

Handcock highlights the International Baccalaureate two-year educational programme, primarily aimed at students aged 16 to 19, as a system that combines technical academia with softer skills. Schools should adapt their curriculum to provide students with core skills like maths and science up to an older age, along with the softer skills needed in the workplace.

“If an employer designed a corporate training programme it would probably include academic, technical and practical content where students can put what they’ve learnt into practice,” he says. “The question for schools is how much space is being created for students to engage in those practical and theoretical components.”

Work experience

Work experience for secondary school pupils is seen by many as a key way to bridge the gap between education and work. The formal requirement for schools to facilitate this was removed from the national curriculum in 2011. However, there are many who feel it can play an integral role.

Work experience, says Anchor Trust’s qualifications and apprenticeships manager Katie Rankin, is more effective than employers going into schools to give a presentation on their industry.

“Some schools say there aren’t the numbers to make it feasible to put on a health and social care course for example,” she says, explaining that work experience can be a hugely valuable tool in plugging such gaps in the curriculum. “I would like to see more schools offering this, even if it means offering it out of term time.”

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), agrees work experience still has a valid role to play, and calls for it to be reinstated into the national curriculum. “Employers providing placements increased by 13% last year in a flat graduate market,” he says. “So employers recognise the connection between this and the company recruitment process.”

Personal Group HRD Rebekah Tapping believes work experience should be offered multiple times during secondary school, to broaden the opportunities students are exposed to and up the chances of them enjoying at least one or two constructive placements. Teachers and pupils should have a clear vision of what they wish to accomplish from work experience placements and not treat it as a box-ticking exercise, she adds.

“I’ve asked colleges what their students would like to get out of the work experience and been told the colleges and schools aren’t bothered as long as they get work experience, so we’ve had to work with schools to establish these goals,” she says. “It’s about making them appreciate the time they have a little more and prepare accordingly.”

Work experience can be a vital tool in showing students the realities of the opportunities available, feels Siemens CEO Jürgen Maier. Much more attention needs to be paid to how certain subjects and industries are presented and discussed in schools, he adds.

“If you show students how digital jobs work together with how factories and manufacturing can improve and create exciting products, I think we can excite young people. So we need to start building a greater education programme around that,” he says. “It’s about creating a new language and enthusiasm for technology in schools. That is where the advances lie in terms of productivity and competitiveness.”

SIG’s group HRD Linda Kennedy-McCarthy agrees on the importance of a culture and language change in schools to break down stigma around more technical, vocational routes. “SIG has a challenge attracting a diverse range of entry-level candidates because many view the distribution and construction industry as not very sexy, associated with dirt and grime and full of white, middle-aged men,” she says. “IT people are particularly difficult to come by because they aspire to work for names easily associated with their profession. However, the implementation of technology has opened up opportunities in our industry such as cyber security, software development and data analysis. And we need to excite people around those opportunities.”

Too narrow too soon

There are others, however, who would seriously question how early in the educational journey vocational skills and subjects should be taught. Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)’s CEO Mark Dawe says independent training providers and technical colleges should spearhead vocational skills policy rather than schools, and that the government needs to take a broader view on vocational education. “Many civil servants talk about schools as part of the solution because that’s the only part of the system they have experience of,” he says.

The concern for many is that the education system could become too rigid in determining young people’s futures too early. Gartner’s Handcock cautions against placing unrealistic expectations on what a young person might be capable of. “Even if you have a mid-career member of staff and moved them to another part of the company you would expect there to be a slow climb to being fully productive,” he says. “There should be caution on what to reasonably expect from young people.”

Mosley agrees, warning against asking students to specialise in subjects so early that it places restrictions on them later. “Choosing subjects to study means individuals need a good idea of their future career,” she says. “A more rounded education initially would provide better general knowledge and the ability to quickly adapt as careers change. We need students and the workforce to be more agile. Gone are the days of a job for life.”

However, the AGR’s Isherwood says those who make career choices earlier are often more focused and clear on how to marry their work ambitions with education. But beyond this there is little evidence to indicate whether the UK’s more holistic education system, or something like the German system (where pupils go down vocational routes earlier) is more successful.

Careers advice

A less contentious issue is the hugely valuable role school careers advice can play. Strong provision here will, the argument goes, empower those who might be interested in selecting a more technical route to do so and prepare accordingly, while also protecting the interests of those who’ll benefit from keeping things broad.

Whether adequate provision is currently in place is, however, a concern for many. Under the Coalition government Connexions was the state-run guidance and support service for young people aged 13 to 19. However, this was replaced with the National Careers Service in April 2012, saving the government £450 million by tasking schools with securing independent and impartial careers information.

Ofsted reported in 2012 that this new system was proving difficult to manage, with only a fifth of schools receiving adequate decision-making information, advice and guidance. The Sutton Trust claimed in 2014 that lack of guidance and support for schools had led to a decline in the quality and quantity of careers advice. Others have warned that it has become overly focused on academic prowess rather than students’ individual needs.

Online resources such as the Morrisby test and Gatsby benchmark of Good Career Guidance are available to steer students’ career options. However, employers believe these don’t address people’s individual needs and are not as effective because they are not compulsory.

AELP’s Dawe says having an overarching UCAS system is too generalist in solving “the current diabolical careers advice system”, because each sector is different. Instead there needs to be a face-to-face process that evaluates students’ prospects individually.

The Association of Colleges (AoC)’s senior policy manager Catherine Sezen believes that students should be given a fuller picture of both vocational and academic prospects while schools should be made aware of potential skills gaps. She thinks both elements are currently lacking. “Young people aren’t getting that comprehensive advice and guidance and unless you know about an occupation it can be difficult,” she says. “Engineering is traditionally associated with dirt, mess and lots of machinery but there’s lots of other opportunities in that field such as computer-aided design.”

The apprentice

Whether these criticisms of the current system will be heeded by government remains largely to be seen. Education secretary Justine Greening recently announced that a Careers Strategy will be launched in the Autumn, which will detail the government’s aims for careers guidance to 2020. What is more certain is the move – most notably through the apprenticeship levy – to strengthen post-16 technical, work-based education for those who have decided this route into the world of work is for them. However, employers report the apprenticeship levy is already facing rollout delays. Fifty-eight of the 162 apprenticeship standards have no approved assessment organisation and an equal number only have one, according to the AELP.

Equally, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), set up to replace UKCES and approve apprenticeship standards and assessment plans submitted by employer groups, isn’t fully operational, and isn’t expected to be until the Autumn. Tackling this should be a government priority to ensure quality apprenticeships, says Kevin Green, CEO at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC). A major concern is the apprenticeship dropout rate, with almost a third (32%) of apprentices in Britain failing to complete their studies in 2016. Green says the government needs to measure completion as well as new starts.

Personal Group’s Tapping explains that her company is unable to set up an IT apprenticeship because some of the course criteria has not yet been decided on by the training colleges. “The government needs to be quicker setting up apprenticeships,” she says. “We desperately want to start an IT apprenticeship and it doesn’t make sense to me that this is happening when there is already an IT skills gap.”

Fletchers Solicitors’ director of people Tim Scott is concerned the levy has been implemented so fast that some apprenticeship frameworks aren’t fully developed yet in terms of assessing their quality. This uncertainty, he adds, could put employers off. However, AELP’s Dawe believes the government needs to roll out the apprenticeship curriculum and qualifications quickly so that its target of three million apprentice starts is met.

Questions around the quality of apprenticeships and frameworks must be approached with caution, adds Dawe, citing the Social Mobility Commission State of the nation 2016 report that called for a government crackdown on low-quality apprenticeships. Dawe rejects this proposal, calling it “an elitist view from people who don’t understand the challenges some people entering apprenticeships face”. “I disagree with scrapping apparently ‘low-quality’ apprenticeships because people get confused between level and quality,” he says. “There are many low-level apprenticeships where individuals gain knowledge and skills and many companies have good level two employees.

“Hairdressers, plumbers, electricians and people in hospitality don’t want employees that have not gone through level two training,” he adds. “If we remove it we’re left with hundreds of individuals who may need that training to bridge the gap between a potentially poor school experience and a sustainable job.”

Greater control

Despite these issues, apprenticeships have been welcomed by employers. A survey of 4,000 employers published by the DfE in 2016 showed most organisations (76%) believe apprenticeships help them improve productivity and their ability to win new business.

One particularly popular policy has been the introduction of employer-led groups known as ‘trailblazers’, which decide on the core skills, knowledge and behaviours an apprenticeship will consist of. This gives companies the autonomy to make apprenticeships work for them.

But Tapping believes autonomy should go beyond trailblazer groups, with employers having greater control over aspects such as the levy funding. This could allow organisations to design a scheme suited to their company culture and business objectives, including training graduates and school leavers.

“Barriers that need to be overcome to achieve autonomy include making it easier for us [as employers] to design our own apprenticeship scheme with colleges so that the scheme will almost all be done in-house, cutting down employer time spent out of the office,” she says. “We have the people in-house to design an apprenticeship programme that works for us.”

REC’s Green agrees with flexing the apprenticeship levy funding. “We’ll be pushing the government hard to make sure this is a training levy as much as an apprenticeship levy, particularly for temporary workers and contractors so they can progress and contribute more to the economy,” he says.

“It seems absurd that the government has created this tax-style levy that businesses then aren’t allowed to pull funding from to help these types of workers.”

However, Trades Union Congress (TUC) senior policy officer Iain Murray believes flexing the levy should be tightly controlled to stop employers using it to carry out training they would have provided anyway.

“The levy aims to incentivise employers to have a long, hard look at their workforce development and employee training strategies,” he says. “If you flex the levy funding it could become a financial pot for general training and dilute the aim of providing more effective apprenticeships.”

Underutilised funds

But the underlying roadblock with the levy is not necessarily employers undermining its original purpose through using it in slightly ‘creative’ ways. The bigger problem is many still not engaging with or understanding it – or knowing it even exists. DfE statistics show only 8,000 of the 19,150 companies eligible to pay the levy have registered to the system. Furthermore the Taylor Review found evidence of companies trying to find ways to avoid the levy.

Green says employers may be focusing more on getting their money back than providing quality training. Tech UK’s Soni agrees, adding that the apprentice levy should be better presented to employers as an incentive rather than a cost. “Flexibility and levy funds being used for wider-ranging initiatives are incentives in themselves,” she says. “The industry is not looking for financial incentives – rather greater options to use their levy funds in the best way possible.”

Another issue is that training and development have traditionally been accessible to mostly larger employers, with small- to medium-sized enterprises lacking either the funds or guidance to deliver effective training. McCain’s Smelt says the most effective government initiative to tackle this would be to develop a community of vocational skills trainers and encourage larger companies to help and guide SMEs. This concern about SMEs missing the opportunity to utilise the levy was raised in the Taylor Review and by the AELP, which called for the government to avoid an ‘apprenticeship desert’ where only larger corporations benefit from the levy.

Hotel du Vin’s group director of people development Lindsay Southward believes the levy should be used to bridge the gap between schools and the workplace. One way would be to stretch it to cover employer-based training in classrooms. The aim would be to engage with students before their GCSEs. Employers could also establish their own accredited institutions to provide vocational skills along with core academic subjects like Maths and English over three of the five school days, with two days of vocational training in the workplace. Southward reports that Hotel du Vin is already working towards becoming an accredited vocational training provider in educational establishments.

“We [at Hotel du Vin] want to work with local skill funding agencies and enterprise partnerships to work with schools and provide their students with vocational training that is accredited by the local education authorities,” she says. “We aim to provide traditional education already present in schools but add a much more intense focus on vocational skills at a younger age. The apprenticeship levy shows the funding for this type of project is already there. It’s just a case of using it in a different way.”

University of life

Another landmark announcement from the government was chancellor Philip Hammond’s 2017 Spring Budget pledge to replace 15,000 technical qualifications with 15 routes known as T-levels. These college-based vocational courses would focus on a range of subjects including construction, creative and design, digital, engineering and manufacturing, health, and science. The number of programme hours for 16- to 19-year-olds would increase by 50% to an average of 900 a year. The T-levels are generally popular with employers, and are seen as a middle ground between academia and vocational training. But employers argue over whether the ability to continually adapt, or specific skills for the future (such as digital skills) are needed most.

Then there’s the long-standing debates around whether too many people are sent down the university route, and whether this form of further education could also be better geared to filling the UK’s skills gaps. The annual education report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that more people now have a university or college qualification than GCSEs or A-levels as their highest achievement. Equally the UK now has more graduates than non-graduates in the job market. However, these numbers could be reversed as the Coalition government’s 2012 decision to treble the maximum tuition fees allowed takes effect.

Nonetheless, an over-reliance on university is set to create issues if left unaddressed. AoC’s Sezen highlights that the biggest skills gaps exist mainly just below degree standard at Higher National Diploma (HND) levels 4 and 5. Because of this many university graduates are filling vacancies they are over-qualified for.

“There is a legacy to why we’re in this situation [of having a skills gap]. There are more people going on to higher education but the flip side of that is we have less people doing HNDs that would perhaps lead on to those technical jobs,”she says. “We’ve then got people getting degrees and slotting into lower-level posts.”

To address the rising number of students leaving university in debt and provide vocational skills, degree-level apprenticeships in management and digital technology have been created by the Open University. These government-backed courses are designed in partnership with employers, with part-time study taking place at university or college.

Dawe says degree apprenticeships will be a ‘game-changer’ in terms of perceptions of apprenticeships. “Rather than the current situation where 50% of university students are in debt with potentially no job, degree apprentices will have an income while they learn and avoid student debt,” he says. “At the same time employers will get students three years earlier and provide them with proper work-based skills.”

The REC’s Green believes tuition fees should be set in a way that encourages more students to invest in subjects related to skills employers require. This could also stem the flow of people over-subscribing for subjects where there aren’t many vacancies and encourage educational establishments to put on more courses that address business needs, he says.

The future of skills

Which reforms will be made and which calls from industry bodies and skills experts heeded remains to be seen. The apprenticeship levy is in its infancy and T-levels aren’t yet launched so it’s unclear how successful each strategy will ultimately be.

What isn’t in doubt is that changes must be made. And fast. The UK faces an unprecedented period of economic and social change as demographics continue to widen the skills gap, the digital revolution necessitates widespread changes to the labour market, and Brexit restricts the supply of skilled workers from abroad. There are certainly many who would argue the school curriculum could play a much greater role in preparing students for the world of work and encouraging more to go down vocational routes, through strong work experience and careers advice programmes for example. But the argument for earlier vocational skills interventions is a complex one and certainly not clear-cut in terms of ensuring boosted in-work performance later down the line.

The bottom line for many is that the government has shown an encouraging appetite for addressing skills shortages through educational and work-based reforms. It is now up to educational and skills experts, and indeed HRDs and L&D professionals, to call for the kinds of changes they know would help at each educational stage. “Employers working with education, government and enterprise partnerships to influence vocational training is certainly possible,” says Hotel du Vin’s Southward. “The apprenticeship levy shows funding is available… it’s just a case of working out how best to proceed.”