Never too old to learn

With too few young people to fill job vacancies, we need to train our ageing community

Gordon Brown's recent trip to China clearly had an effect on him. Impressed by the breath-taking scale of China's investment in knowledge and skills, he described British adult skills - or, rather, lack of them - as "the Achilles heel of the UK economy". Britain's economic challenge lies in high-skilled as well as low-cost work, which makes it unsurprising that the government's lifelong learning policy focuses strongly on skills for work.

Is that focus enough, however, to secure not just economic competitiveness, but also an inclusive society? In the next ten years, because of the changing demographic of Britain, only one in three jobs will be filled by young people entering the workforce. Some of the vacancies will be for new jobs - evidence of the strength of the UK economy - but far more will result from a generation of makers and menders hanging up their tools. Replacing them will not be easy. It will involve serious strategies for upskilling the existing workforce, like that pioneered through the NHS Skills Escalator. Yet the first government skills strategy, published in 2003, had nothing to say about the impact of demography on the skills challenge facing the UK. To date, too little has been done in public education and training policy to prepare for the change in the pattern of employment and re-skilling we can expect in the years ahead.

More women, and particularly women from minority ethnic communities, will need to be recruited, and to a much wider range of jobs. There will be a rise in migration to the UK, particularly for skilled workers. Already, speaking Polish or Hungarian is a distinct advantage if you are managing a city building site. In addition, we shall need to persuade older people to stay on in the workforce, or to come back to work.

The need to improve skills has led the government to set a range of targets in higher education. The aim is to engage 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds through foundation degrees (developed to strengthen the link between higher education and the world of work), the Skills for Life strategy (which seeks to secure literacy, language and numeracy skills as a right for every adult) and the skills strategy target (which aims to get unskilled and low-skilled adults qualifications that can secure employability, and a platform for further study). As the minister for skills, Ivan Lewis, has put it: "We can no longer guarantee people a job for life, but we can help make sure they are employable for life."

Another strategy is the National Employment Training Programme, built on pilots run over the past two years. It offers employers advice on skills and meets the full cost of training employees up to level 2 (5 GCSEs, grade A*-C or equivalent), in or out of the workplace. The trade union movement, too, has made an important contribu-tion to the skills agenda through the brokerage role played by union learning representatives.

Three million people currently draw invalidity benefits. The New Deal for Skills, led by the Department for Work and Pensions, uses skills coaching and individualised programmes to offer people trapped in benefits poverty the chance to prepare for work they can manage. It even includes provision to overcome the infamous 16-hour rule, which stopped a generation of unwaged adults from using too much time to study in case they were unavailable for short-term employment.

Nothing similar is in place to engage older workers, or to create pathways to skilled employment for people not on benefit but currently outside the labour market. And we lack an effective mechanism to recognise skills and qualifications gained overseas. These groups would all benefit from a development strategy.

Yet as investment in young people rises, cuts in provision for adults is likely. Legislation charges the Learning and Skills Council to provide sufficient education for young people, and to spend what is left on adults. Recent success in improving staying-on rates at 16, coupled with a short-term growth in 16-19s, put pressures on the budget for adults. These pressures can be contained with rising budgets, but a tight spending round presages a real crisis from 2006-7. School budgets and the government's targeted programmes for skills will be protected. The brunt will be borne by community-based "other education" in the college sector. These are the modest short courses people use for personal development and as a first step to learning. They have a critical role to play in social cohesion and in supporting the move towards skilled work for the very women, migrants and older people who need to be involved if demographic change is to be managed successfully.

Increasingly, the focus of lifelong learning policy is on the world of work. But healthy economies are based on thriving communities that provide a platform for the creative workforce the UK needs. As people develop skills and confidence in one place, they use it in another and so learning permeates through society. That principle remains the cornerstone of employee development programmes. As Gordon Brown says: "We need to address not only what we are, but also what we might become."

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education