Training overhaul needed to tackle growing skills shortages, influential MP warns

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Robert Halfon slams ‘disconnect in the wiring’ between education and business needs.

Training and education needs to better reflect the requirements of UK businesses to tackle skills shortages and improve social mobility, MPs warned the skills minister during a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday.

In light of a growing UK skills shortage, Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow and former skills minister, urged society to equip young people with the connections, networks, and team-working and problem-solving skills sought by the businesses to whom he spoke to mobilise social justice.

With around 260,000 of approximately 491,000 apprenticeships starts at Level 2 last year, Halfon suggested a governmental focus on skilled work – and the expansion of degree apprenticeships that enable individuals to gain a degree while practising skills in a paid role – would address the disparity between education and work.

Halfon pointed to the findings of the Department for Education’s most recent employer perspective survey, which found that just 58 per cent of employers felt that 18-year-old school leavers were prepared for the world of work.

“Clearly, something has become disconnected in the wiring between our schools and our skills systems,” he added.

Since 2015, all young people have been required to participate in training or education up to age 18. Halfon suggested replacing GCSEs with skills baccalaureates to broaden skills at an academic and technical level.

Halfon also urged the government to make “destination measures” the forefront of schooling with “intensive careers fairs, mentoring and visits”. Young people could join a skills academy to help them develop skills relevant “to the real world”, he suggested.

Speaking at the debate on the behalf of the government, Anne Milton, skills minister, agreed that careers prospects should not be based on “who you know” and that skills cannot “alone be learned in the classroom”.

Particularly for those who struggled at school, contact with employers provided a goal of joining the workforce, she said, but clarified that the focus of the curriculum remained a good foundation in key subjects such as English and maths.

Milton advocated gaining experience of the working world to “prepare children to go on to the next stage”, and the “glue” around this was careers advice and provision – yet to reach the right level in Britain.

Opening up degree apprenticeships – but, more importantly, compliance with the apprenticeship levy – was key to achieving social justice, she said.

“We have made good progress on apprenticeships,” a central part of this change, Milton said.

Halfon also warned that, since the closure of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in March 2017, there had been no single organisation responsible for overseeing the UK’s skills shortages.

He also noted that the Confederation of British Industry echoed concerns about skills shortages in its recent skills survey, which found that twice as many businesses this year lacked confidence that they could fill skills shortages, Halfon said. It also called for the ease of immigration restrictions to tackle this.

Halfon warned that the growing prevalence of technology in the working world meant today’s young people needed to reassess the skills they required. “They will need to be able to turn their hands to new careers and demonstrate the human skills such as creativity that robots cannot master,” he said.

The debate comes less than six months after the release of the government’s industrial strategy white paper, which included a new national retraining scheme to support people to reskill, a £64m investment in digital and construction training, and a £406m fund for maths, digital and technical education.

Many industry leaders, however, criticised the paper for lacking sufficient measures to deal with the country’s skills and training gap. At the time, the CIPD said the national retraining scheme was primarily focused on the use of educational technology for students in just two small sectors.

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