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Experts urge caution over May's industrial strategy

May promised to boost STEM skills, support business growth, and encourage trade but experts have reservations

The government must “tread carefully” in implementing prime minister Theresa May’s industrial strategy, according to Chris Jones, chief executive of the City & Guilds Group.

In a green paper released yesterday May promised to boost STEM skills in the country, support businesses to grow, and encourage trade and internal investment.

However, Jones warned that the government could be at risk of “initiative overload” due to many new schemes coming into force in quick succession.

“The government must tread carefully,” he said. “At the moment we are at risk of initiative overload, what with the apprenticeship levy and the three million apprentices target, the Technical and Further Education Bill, and the area-based reviews, among others. And the government has a tendency to ignore past mistakes in policymaking by rushing policies through or not giving them time to embed."

He added: “We also need to be careful that Institutes of Technology don’t end up being a rebrand of colleges. The funding proposed is not enough to establish new providers. Yet for the Institutes to offer the very best in technical training they need to be unique. That could mean looking at different models of governance, or collaborations between colleges, training providers and other organisations for example.

“The bottom line is that the Institutes must deliver a high-quality teaching and learning experience to boost productivity and support growth. I hope the government takes its time, and draws on the views of others, to make sure it can deliver on its promises.”

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said he hoped the government will focus on the root cause of problems to avoid wasted effort.

“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,” he said. “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.

“The strategy also overlooks the need for significant additional investment in lifelong learning. Provision for adult learning [age 19+] measured by achievements has been cut by 25% since 2011 and today’s announcement does nothing to reverse this decline. Greater investment in lifelong learning is crucial to allow workers at different stages of their careers to upskill or reskill in response to automation and advances in technology, especially as people will be working for longer."

However, Mark O’Donoghue, global managing director of online learning provider AVADO, welcomed the focus on digital skills.

“It’s encouraging to see the government putting digital skills at the forefront of its strategy,” he said. “Businesses must embrace digital technologies and those best able to navigate the digital shift will put people at the centre of their approach. This doesn’t just mean relying on new starters or specific departments to plug the digital gaps, but making sure all staff are upskilled.

“On a practical level this means fostering the right company culture and empowering people with the necessary skills. Many of the fastest growing jobs and skills today didn’t exist 10 years ago, so without constant training and learning businesses will get left behind. Increasingly this will be vital to make sure the workforce has the complementary skills to thrive in a digital world.”

Business secretary Greg Clark told the BBC that the government is staging a consultation on the industrial strategy proposals.