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16 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:57am

Skills are a whole-life issue

As Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Skills and Employment and a member of both the Skills Commission and the Higher Education Commission, Baroness Sharp of Guildford is one of the most active voices in the Lords on skills, training and lifelong learning

By Baroness Sharp

With a career that spans six decades so far, the 77-year-old Baroness Sharp exemplifies the ideal of a long and varied working life. From her early life in the civil service to her work as an economist at LSE to her central role as a Liberal Democrat policymaker and peer, Sharp says she has spent 56 years “constantly trying to upgrade” herself. As people work longer in life and change careers more often, and as new technology remoulds the workplace, Sharp explains it’s not just school leavers and graduates that need the right skills: it’s the entire workforce.  

“We have 12 million people retiring in the next 10 years,” she explains, “and only 7 million coming into the workforce. The Home Office is making it more difficult for people to come into this country as migrants, so where are we going to get the people we need from? Older people are going to have to fill those slots, for a number of reasons – not least because their pensions are going to be insufficient and they’re going to have to stay on working – so we’re going to have to have a huge programme of upgrading skills.”

As an experienced policymaker in science and technology Sharp is keenly aware that many jobs could soon be automated, but maintains a pragmatic position, observing that “Jobs come and jobs go.” Specifically, they will go from manufacturing: “If you look at a lot of the motorcar industry at the moment, robots have taken over a great deal, but there are still quite a lot of men and women on the production line. But I think that increasingly these [production lines] will be completely robotised. Similarly, if one looks at accounting and legal work, jobs that have required people are going to become automated.” Part of the answer, she says, will be to insist on more skills in the areas where people are needed.

“One area that is expanding very fast is the care industry. Going into this industry are people who, in many cases, have relatively low skills – they’re often put through little more than a basic health and safety course. And then you look at a country like Finland, where you’re not allowed to teach in a nursery school unless you’ve got a master’s degree. There are skills that are needed in these sectors, if we’re going to provide the level of care that we want for people.”

“There will be new jobs,” she says, “but it’s much, much easier to predict where the jobs are going to disappear than it is to say where the new jobs are going to come from.” 

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The problem with apprenticeships

“The whole apprenticeship system has suffered since Labour introduced the Train to Gain scheme, which essentially paid employers to train people. As always happens when you introduce this sort of thing, you find some employers looking at ways in which they can get the money and do as little as possible. Employers were taking the traditional introductory training schemes that they had, relabelling them as Level 2 schemes, and taking the money for a pretty rudimentary training course, which was exemplified by the Morrisons scandal.”

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In April 2012, a Panorama investigation found that one in 10 apprentices in the UK worked for Morrisons, and that almost 40% of all employees at the supermarket chain were classed as ‘apprentices’. These apprenticeships were accredited by private companies with lucrative government contracts, but offered little – if anything – more than standard retail employment; the Morrisons scheme typically lasted just 6 months.

“When the coalition came in, we put the old Train to Gain money into apprenticeships – and people switched over to these low-level apprenticeships. So if you look at the figures, yes, there’s been a very substantial increase in the number of those taking apprenticeships, but disproportionately they’ve been at Level 2, which is a fairly low level. It’s supposed to be equivalent to five GCSEs at level A-C, but it’s somewhat different, and some of the courses were as short as six weeks. That was stopped in 2013 and 14, when it was decided that apprenticeships had to last at least a year, but they are often not very high-level courses.” 

The problem with so many low-level apprenticeships, she explains, is that “this is not the level of skill where we’ve got shortages. All the skills shortages are of the higher level, the technician skills. In the construction trades, we’re having to import labour to fill those skilled jobs. This is particularly in what I would say was the old HNC and HND levels, the Level 4 and Level 5 skills. A pitiful number of our apprentices are going through to do these – something like 0.5% of them.”

Plummeting numbers in adult education

With tighter household budgets and a lack of funding, Sharp says the number of people retraining and upskilling later in life is plummeting.

“The old route for doing [higher level training] was going along to night school, where there were subsidised classes. You paid something, or your employer paid something, but the government also chipped something in. On the whole, the government has put all its money into the apprenticeship system, and taken the money out of the adult skills system. So if you look at the numbers in FE colleges doing HNDs and HNCs, it’s just disappeared more or less completely. A quarter of a million people have dropped out of part-time higher education.

Partly to blame is the rule on ELQs, or Equivalent Level Qualifications. ­“If you’ve done, let’s say, an English degree, and you decide to study sociology to become a social worker, you can’t [because you’ve already taken out a student loan for your first degree]. And this is absolutely mad. They’ve overturned it for the STEM subjects, and I’m glad, but we need much more flexibility across the board here. People complain about media studies, but the creative industries, the combination of media studies and digital skills, are areas of huge expansion at the moment.”

At a time when the more senior end of the workforce is in particular need of new and more advanced skills, Sharp says the emphasis has overwhelmingly been upon getting students and schools leavers to take out student loans.

“The government has done a very good job indeed of selling the whole system to 18-year-olds. I remember at the age of 21, joining the Civil Service and being talked to about my pension, and it was such an enormously long way away that I thought well I really don’t care very much about this. And I think they have much the same thing: everybody is taking on student debt, the notion that when you come out and you earn £25,000, it’s only going to cost you £10 a week. That’s three Costa coffees, it’s not that much. What they don’t think about is that it goes on for 30 years, and that once they start earning 35 to 40 thousand, it’s a 9% surcharge on top of their income tax. Older people who are already budgeting are aware that they can’t afford to take on these extra debts, because it will cut their disposable income.” 

As an economist, Sharp sees the skill level of the workforce as being inseparable from its productivity. She points to the insistence upon high skill levels in other countries – particularly Germany – as the reason the UK lags behind in productivity, with the most recent ONS figures putting the UK a full 36 percentage points behind Germany in current price GDP per hour worked (1).

“Germany, has a much more regimented economy than ours. For traditional skills there is what’s called a license to practice: they regulate entry into the industry. It’s a combination of better equipment, better trained people, and patient capital. If you’re going to be using very fine equipment, you have to have people who understand that equipment and who can work it appropriately.” What’s more, Sharp explains that this is not a new phenomenon. “We were looking at German and British productivity in the 1980s: we were using exactly the same machines as the Germans, but productivity was 50% of German productivity. The reason was that the [British] machines were out of action half the time, because these metalworking machines were worked flat out, nobody cleared up the filings that built up around them, and eventually they just went down. In Germany, the apprentices who worked on the line would stop on a Friday afternoon, strip the machines down, clean them – and the things worked. They knew how to repair them. In Britain, [the machines] were essentially being used by semi-skilled workers who had no idea how they worked, and when they broke down, they had to send for the engineer.
I think this illustrates quite well the problems that we face in modern Britain: we’ve obviously moved forward from that age, but it’s still a very similar issue. Those working with the robots don’t have much understanding of the underlying principles. They’re trained to do the minimum that is required.” 

Despite her concerns, Baroness Sharp remains optimistic that we will adjust to a more technologically advanced workplace. “Part of the answer to this is what we’re already trying to do. If you look at the computer studies courses, they’re trying to move away from just teaching people how to use existing programmes, and teaching them how to do the programming underlying that.”

Skills: a health issue 

Overall, though, she says lifelong learning isn’t solely a matter of the productivity workers can offer to companies. Skills, from basic community education to advanced university courses, are a vital to the health of an ageing population.

“Given the pressures that are going to be on people to work later in life, we need to be able to retrain. People need to be able to go to evening courses at colleges to do any training they need, or to be sent by their employer to be retrained.

But also people who are retired, mums who don’t work, and so on – some people go in [to community education] just for fun, and then they go on to do GCSEs and A-levels and access courses, and in some cases they then go on to university. I gave an award at NIACE’s Adult Education Awards to a lady who had been a belly dancer, who had ended up doing a PhD in education and was teaching teacher training courses. Second-chance education is one aspect of it, but it’s also about fulfillment. Even if it is only cake-making or belly dancing, people get a sense of achievement from going to these things, There’s research that underpins this – they live longer, and are less of a burden on the NHS. They’re healthier and happier.”