Fixing the foundations

NCFE Policy Leader, Andrew Gladstone-Heighton examines skills growth and replacement in a post-Brexit economy in his newly published paper.

In just under a year, article 50 will expire, and the UK will have left the European Union.

Among the many issues that arise from this, technical education and skills is often overlooked as focus is placed on international trade, tariffs and customs union.

Whilst these issues are important, it’s a mistake to overlook the role of technical education and skills. In order to safeguard our future prosperity and achieve any economic growth post-Brexit, we need to urgently address our technical education and skills shortages.

The government has taken steps to reform technical education and skills, but these predate the vote to leave the European Union, and their focus therefore is on skills growth, rather than skills replacement.

There has been a lot of effort focused on the former, but little consideration given to the latter, which given the timescale, is of critical importance for our future prosperity. If we are to leave the European Union, care must be taken to ensure that domestic skills needs are met. This becomes particularly acute if restrictions are placed on migrant labour.

The government should therefore clearly set out the status of EU migrants and their access to the UK labour market as soon as possible. This will allow industry and educators to align their skills and recruitment strategies accordingly.

The ‘backfilling and securing’ job roles in the key areas of the economy - skills replacement - should be another priority if restrictions on free movement are enforced as planned. This skills replacement will need to be across the economy. Current technical education and skills reform is focused at higher level skills growth, but there continues to be significant wage and employability return on investment of qualifications at lower levels. For example, among disadvantaged learners, those who completed a level 2 course went on to earn 12% more than their peers from a similar socio-economic background. This is in direct opposition to government theory which argues that low level vocational qualifications have no significant effects on wages in either direction.

We need to capitalise on these lower level growth opportunities, and government should secure and enable funding for learners of all ages to undertake qualifications from entry level to level 3 (as well as progression on to these courses at lower levels), to ensure the associated wage growth and the increased employability returns.

My message to government therefore is ‘fix the foundations before focusing effort elsewhere’, and I’ve set out my full thinking in a report.

We’re a year away from a crucial moment in our nation’s history, and it’s our duty to safeguard the future prosperity of our people and productivity of our economy. We can’t achieve this without establishing strong foundations.