New Year, New Skills - In need of a skills revolution

There can be little doubt that we need a skills revolution.

New Skills blog

Whether it’s the very real threat of skills shortages and gaps, whether it’s the significant lag in productivity the UK has experienced in the last 10 years or whether it’s the fact that the economy is facing the most significant change in a generation as a result of technology, automation and the growth of artificial intelligence – we need to increase and improve participation in the UK’s skills system.

The fact is there has been a monumental decline in either individual or employer investment in skills. There are reasons for that – employers are pre-occupied by political and economic uncertainty around Brexit and, it appears, struggling to cope with the introduction of the Apprentice Levy. In the absence of a robust lifelong learning culture workers have not bought into the government’s shift from publicly funded FE to ‘career loans’, as well as suffering for the decline in employer investment.

While demand has fallen – need has not. The government’s Industrial Strategy says 90 per cent of all jobs will require some digital skills capacity within the next 20 years. Employers in many sectors are already anxious about not being able to attract or develop the skilled workforce needed to meet demand. And while there are legitimate criticisms about the quality of work and hours, the official unemployment rate would show that there isn’t a huge unoccupied labour force just waiting for a call from potential employers.

In the face of all the negatives, unions continue to encourage, support and enable workers to access training and develop their skills, especially those with the fewest or no qualifications. Every year unions, with the support of unionlearn, help a quarter of a million workers to progress their learning, everything from English and maths to high level apprenticeships and CPD.

No other organisation enables working people to get on at work better, with amazing results. Workers with union support to learn are 2.7 times more likely to get a pay rise, 5.7 times more likely to gain a promotion and 80 per cent develop transferable skills. What’s more is that unions embed this success by securing learning agreements with employers, the closest thing we have to establishing a lifelong learning culture.

There is more we need to do, of course. It remains the case that those most likely to need to develop their skills, those closest to the impact of technological and AI (Artificial Intelligence) changes are least likely to be engaging in skills development. And if you’re older, or female, or black, or disabled, then the inequality seen in pay, quality and seniority of employment also applies to your learning and development experience.

This is where we see a clear case of the value of social partnership, where the voice of workers and employers working together in policy development, in the operational delivery of that policy, and in ensuring quality really makes a massive difference. Both the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) have identified social partnership in skills as essential criteria for effective skills systems – and the evidence of union learning in the UK would suggest that’s evidently the case.

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Kevin Rowan

Kevin Rowan is Director of unionlearn and Head of Organisation, Services and Skills at the TUC.