Skills in the recession? Not likely!

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 - Blog, Employment, government jobs, Minimum Wage, politics, Qualifications, recruitment, redundancy, sunday thoughts, unemployment

Skills in the Recession

Big Ben + Houses Of Parliament
Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex France

As a bit of a politico – I love the cut and thrust of the debate, and the fact it affects every part of our lives – I was quickly captivated by the Opposition debate in the House of Commons yesterday, entitled Skills in the Recession.

To be frank and honest, I wouldn’t have found it let alone noticed it had I not been flicking from BBC News to SkyNews on Freeview while cooking diner – but captivated I was, and thoroughly disappointed to watch also

A curried background:

In their recommendations last Autumn, the Migration Advisory Committee set out the skills and job types that the UK was apparently short of, and couldn’t be fulfilled from the existing UK workforce though training initiatives: chefs was one of these skill areas. The criteria for all Tier2 skilled migrants were pretty strict, and was based on a points system – get enough points, get a job offer from a registered employer, and you can come to the UK for up to five years as long as you are employed throughout that period. Key areas for obtaining large amounts of points included: a university education; a track record of high quality employment; professional certification; speaking English at a good level. There was also guidance on wage minimum levels – higher than those for resident workers, and hence giving a skills gap below this for trainee’s.

In Spring 2009 as was planned, but also as UK unemployment rose through 2million, and I surmise from the revised communication from MAC came under some political pressure.

Just before MAC’s Spring announcement, the Trade Unions went public and suggested that much as though skill gaps existed,  potential British workers were missing out on the opportunity to apply for these jobs. In all honesty, I think they were right, as the Borders & Immigration Agency would adjust/change/slither their requirements around on the confirmed/minimum need for position advertising: was it to be 2weeks in a local newspaper or 4; should it be advertised in the Time or the Telegraph; which combination of Job Boards? Each time the criteria would change before they would agree the post could not be filled by a British worker, and would hence approve the post for fulfilment by a skilled migrant.

If you look at this from the British workers point of view, it would be nice to know that the jobs were consistently advertised, and where. From the employers who is short of skills and the recruiter undertaking the work, it would also be nice to know that having fulfilled the required criteria for the required amount of time, that they job could be approved for fulfilment by a skilled migrant worker. Unfortunately, the system before then suited no one except the people at the Borders & Immigration agency, who could manage this form of economic migration, but can’t until 2011 be bothered to count those coming through airports. Targets only work when you can measure output, so no wonder it could take between 4 and 54 weeks to approve a job for potential fulfilment by a skilled migrant!

In February, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith did us – employers, British workers, Unions and recruiters – a favour, and said the criteria was that any job had to be advertised in Job Centre+ for at least 2weeks. I still think that is too short a period, and wouldn’t have worried had it been 4weeks which would in my professional opinion been a better cycle for all: but at least now we have an agreed criteria.

MAC’s new Spring announcement came out with some adjusted criteria, which stated that they had been asked to look more specifically at the area of chefs. The report stated that:

the Sector Skills Council, People 1st and the Government to work towards up-skilling the resident labour market to fill more ethnic chef posts locally

MAC agreed to raise the skill level by raising the wage level, from £8.10 an hour to a recommendation of £8.45 an hour, equivalent to an annual wage of £16,848.

The Parliamentary debate:
At 15:48 yesterday according to Hansard, the Rt Hon David Willetts (Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Innovation, Universities and Skills; Havant, Conservative), rose to propose that:

That this House regrets the Government’s failure to deliver the skills training and education needed if the economy is to emerge stronger from the recession; condemns the incompetent management of further education colleges’ capital projects; is concerned that the percentage of young people not in education, employment or training has risen significantly since the start of the decade; notes the concerns of training providers that funding allocations for 2009-10 will not support current apprentices to the end of their training; is disappointed that an estimated 1.4 million adult learning places have been lost since 2005; and urges the Government to set out, in consultation with the Association of Colleges, clear criteria for the prioritisation of funding for college building projects, to provide support for more Masters degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects during the downturn, to fund learners over the age of 25 in level 3 STEM skills and to help apprentices at risk of losing their places to find new employers or new training places.

Really? I thought we voted in Labour in 1997 because the Conservatives were a bunch of sleezeballs, while Tony Blair promised us “Education, Education and Education!” Gosh, things must have changed, and so the debate – which you can read in full on – followed and some interesting facts emerged:

  • Unemployment in the 16-24 year olds rose in ten years to 14.4% by 2007
  • Conservative-run council in Wolverhampton cut £640,000 from the adult education service budget over a two-year period. This is apparently in response to the budgetary allocation from the Learning & Skills Council
  • The number of NEETs – young people Not in Education, Employment or Training – in 2000 was 630,000; by 2008 that number had risen to 860,000
  • In 1997, 5.2 million 16 to-24-year-olds were in full-time education or employment. The figure by April 2008 was 6.1 million
  • Funding to the Open University has fallen, as the Government have funded the “Equivalent or Lower Qualifications” system
  • Many of the most effective NEET schemes are social enterprises. However, if they don’t make their required targets of output, or comply with NVQ Lvl2 or Lvl3, then LSC cuts their funding in year2 onwards
  • The LSC has a capital track record of asking colleges to bid for complete rebuilding projects over their proposed refurbishing projects. Most of the capital budget for rebuilding comes from Public/Private financing, while refurbishment comes from Government tax coffers. 144 colleges presently have LSC funding on hold due to budgetary constraints
  • Funding per student/16+ has risen under Labour by 30%
  • Hinckley is confronted with a £2.5 million cut in expenditure to which it is already committed, including £1.5 million on Train to Gain, which is 30 per cent
  • The Government expect 60,000 over-25s to start apprenticeships in 2009, compared with the 29,000 planned. There is more than £1 billion to start 250,000 apprenticeships in 2009/10
  • There are 22,000 union learning reps for 250,000 learners who went to learn at work last year
  • The budget for the next two academic years includes a total of £655 million for the sixth-form and 16-to-18 college sector to enable those colleges to expand and offer additional places
  • As part of the £1.7 billion of recession investment, my DISC will be able offer more than 80,000 training places for young adults who have been unemployed for more than 12 months, due to start Autumn 2009
  • Stephen Williams (Bristol West, Liberal Democrat) pointed out two great issues:
  • (1) The problem with STEM subjects begins right the way back in our secondary schools, as do many of our problems in education, so we need to enthuse children to take part in science and engineering subjects.
  • (2) The absurd anomaly in financial structure, whereby, once someone reaches 25, it is not deemed appropriate for the state to fund their first participation in a level 3 qualification

On division of the House – ie, voting – the debate was lost: Ayes 195, Noes 277.

In reflection:

As a business person now, but ex-Union committee member for 12months as Apprentice representative, I took a stance a long time ago not to join any political party. My reasoning was that in business, we have our agenda, and some times one party would suit our agenda, and sometimes another: we hence could switch with equal and easy speed. Plus, we needed to be friendly to all.

My personal view of the debate was – great debate, one that should have been had, but that the structural problems revealed and present Government initiatives won’t solve the long term skills problems. I found it interesting that both sides of the house recognised that Union Skills rep provided great learning solutions – probably because they are right inside the work place and work force, and hence could see the problem staring them in the face.

But why is the LSC failing so badly to resolve problems? Clearly is funding is political – hence the push upwards to get the refurbishment of colleges off the Governments books. But when the funding cuts come, as was pointed out: the building projects stalled, the colleges can’t deliver, and the funds are stuck on hold unable to fund immediate training needs in the workforce.

I can’t see that any initiative at present would solve the delivery of skilled workers to UK plc. Simply, the whole system of learning from birth to death needs review and co-ordination. Other wise in two years time, we may well have lower unemployment form some proliferate spending, but MAC will still be reporting the same long term skills gaps, and UK plc will have fallen further behind. found other areas of employment to get into.

Good Luck!


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