Why the General Election and Brexit provide the perfect chance to reshape the UK’s skills agenda

With campaigning for the 2017 UK General Election well and truly underway, attention will now focus on the different policy provisions due to be set out in the election manifestos. With the pollsters predicting a landslide victory for the Conservatives, we can reasonably expect that, notwithstanding any of the recent Brexit or Trump-esque surprises, Theresa May will likely retain her premiership and continue navigating Britain’s complicated exit from the European Union.

While much of the media attention on the Tories’ campaign has been focussed on the inclusion of the much-vaunted energy price cap, as well as a commitment to the party’s perilous net migration target, one area of particular interest will be the Conservatives’ ongoing commitment to boosting the UK skills agenda.

The signs from the current Government have so far been encouraging. While in office, Theresa May has rightfully presided over the promotion of the UK skills agenda to the mainstream political consciousness. She has correctly highlighted the link between long-standing skills shortages and UK growth and productivity, while carrying through the momentum created by the previous administration’s flagship Apprenticeship Levy.

The inclusion of skills as one of the key ten pillars underpinning the industrial strategy, the launch of new public-private partnerships to boost the UK’s digital skills and the investment provision for vocational training in the Budget are but a few welcome signs the Government is taking the issue seriously.

However, with the realities of Brexit casting doubt on the UK’s ongoing access to European labour markets, it is crucial that the Government practices what it preaches and equips the UK workforce with the necessary skills to fulfil May’s vision of Britain’s future as a great trading nation. There are still a number of barriers to provide the skilled workforce required for a post-Brexit Britain and with the UK Commission for Education and Skills predicting two million vacancies requiring higher level skills by 2022, there is sense of urgency in ensuring a successful transition to a more home grown workforce.

It is now up to industry to work with the Government to deliver a strong economy and the skills the country needs for the future. In my role as Director General of The 5% Club, the employer-led movement which champions investment in the next generation through workplace training, I have been fortunate enough to see first-hand the positive attitude of UK business towards investment into the UK’s workforce of tomorrow. Our 200 members, who comprise of SMEs to FTSE 100s operating in a variety of different sectors, have all signed our charter pledging to aspire to have at least 5% of their UK workforce in ‘earn and learn’ positions within five years of joining.

While this commitment from so many UK companies is clearly laudable, their opinions on what more can be done to improve vocational routes into work are particularly timely, perhaps surprising and most importantly, they deserve to be heard.

One of the key arguments put forward by our members is the need to promote apprenticeships and vocational learning as a viable alternative to higher education as a route into work. A recent survey of our members found that employers are confident that apprenticeships can help bridge the gap should the UK lose access to skilled workers – with 89% of respondents saying Brexit would not impact on the number of apprentices they take on.

In fact, those surveyed pointed to the better availability of information on apprenticeships in schools as the main barrier to young people taking on apprenticeships. Nine out of ten respondents believe that improving the quality of information offered by school’s career services could help to change the image of apprenticeships at a national level. Indeed, UK-wide research in 2016, which surveyed 10,000 students about their options following A-levels, found that 40% of those surveyed had received “very little” or “no information” about taking on apprenticeships.

The lack of information of the benefits of apprenticeships and vocational training is the main contributor to the ignorance which surrounds technical and professional education (TPE), and one of the key hindrances to young people considering this route into work. Take earnings for example. Research suggests that the amount apprenticeships earn over the course of their lives exceeds what graduates are likely to earn by up to 270% (source: Barclays and the Centre for Economics and Business Research, August 2016). Meanwhile, university students in England are graduating with the higher levels of debt than those in any other English-speaking country – owing an average of £44,500 upon graduation.

These are just a few examples that highlight the need for a public awareness to breakdown some of these misunderstandings and to champion technical, practical and vocational learning. As we eagerly await the level of provision dedicated to skills in the manifestos, we do so in anticipation of the Government carrying on the hard-earned momentum in boosting our domestic skills agenda.

The realities of post-Brexit Britain may have forced the Government’s hand in preparing a domestic workforce, but we should still see this as a positive opportunity for industry to take the lead in reshaping the UK’s workforce and safeguard our future economic prosperity.

For more information, please see The 5% Club’s recent paper on ‘Providing the skilled workforce for post-Brexit Britain’.

For more information contact:
Hamish Hardie
Portland Communications
T: 0207 554 1835
E: hamish.hardie@portland-communications.com

Notes to editors:

The 5% Club

The 5% Club works with UK employers and key influencers to inspire, educate and retain a growing body of people into “earn and learn” placements in order to increase the number of apprentices, sponsored students and graduates.

The goal of The 5% Club is to increase the employment and career prospects of today’s youth and equip the UK with the skilled workforce it needs to safeguard Britain’s economy.

The 5% Club was launched in 2013.

Members sign The 5% Club charter. As a member of The 5% Club employers state they are:

• Committed to helping the UK’s growth agenda and acknowledge the importance of developing people as both a business and social imperative

• Playing their part in addressing youth unemployment and skills shortage

• Pledging to work towards having a minimum 5% of their UK workforce enrolled on formalised apprentice, sponsored student and/or graduate development schemes within five years

• Measuring and reporting on their progress annually against the above metric in their Corporate Social Responsibility section of the Annual Report and Accounts or equivalent document

• Committed to encouraging other employers to participate in the campaign.

The Steering Board for The 5% Club is formed of the Chairman, Leo Quinn, Group Chief Executive, Balfour Beatty; Allan Cook, Chairman, Atkins; Steve Wadey, CEO, QinetiQ; David Armstrong, UK MD, MBDA.

Membership is free, however going forward the running costs of The 5% Club will be funded by donations from members.