Harvey Young explains why, in his view, the Government is wrong to obsess over apprenticeships and should look to improving basic skills to improve national productivity.

The BIS Select Committee’s report on the Government’s productivity plan raised several concerns about the lack of focus on a variety of policy areas, including apprenticeships, but what has escaped most attention was the call to address the poor level of basic skills in the workforce.

The committee concluded that the plan “does not provide specific or measurable actions to solve the problem of the lack of basic skills in the economy”.

It recommended that the Government should outline what policies will be put in place to improve basic workforce skills and to clearly state how they will contribute towards enhanced productivity.

This was the very first recommendation of the report, aptly reflecting the fact that the basis of all productivity is founded on having good competencies in both English and maths.

There are millions of employees who will not be suitable for an apprenticeship

The recent trend in skills policy development to tackle sluggish productivity appears geared towards putting all the eggs in the apprenticeships basket.

I frequently meet with employers who tell me their workforce lack critical skills, and that an apprenticeship is often not appropriate for their workers, many of them middle-aged with families.

If the Government is serious about raising the country’s productivity, there needs to be recognition that there are millions of employees who will not be suitable for an apprenticeship.

A comprehensive strategy must be launched to tackle this, as the committee explicitly pointed out.

The productivity gap between Britain and our international competitors is estimated to be the biggest since records began in the 1990s.

Recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures suggest 9m working age people in England do not have sufficient literacy and numeracy skills.

The Government argues the surge in new apprenticeships will help improve literacy and numeracy proficiency.

This fails to acknowledge that they are aiming to create 3m new apprenticeships by 2020 which, if all assigned to the current workforce with poor literacy and numeracy, would still leave out 6m people in desperate need of basic skills training.

There is no doubt apprenticeships bring significant advantages, helping young people move into work, thereby bringing down stubbornly high rates of youth unemployment.

However, solely relying on apprenticeships fails to address the millions of older workers who form a huge chunk of the labour market.

Furthermore, many apprenticeships require a minimum standard of English and maths, meaning workers with existing poor functional skills cannot be considered for a training position.

There must be firm policies in place to cater to this group, otherwise we run the risk of a generational gap between older employees and those entering the workforce for the first time.

English and maths training for adults in the workplace is a great way of boosting employees’ basic skills without disrupting their day to day work.

Employers tell me how their staff are more motivated and time taken to carry out basic tasks is slashed.

In research commissioned by BIS, Ipsos Mori found that 11 per cent of employers with a basic numeracy skills gap reported that they incurred costs through lower sales or lower profit margins. Furthermore, 52 per cent of employers said that following basic skills training for their employees, they were able to introduce new, more technical processes which help increase efficiency.

Workplace learning clearly increases the performance of businesses across the UK, which contributes to a more productive workforce.

The Government needs to support this part of the skills sector through ring fenced budgets and support for colleges who would like to fund this critical element of training.

Critics argue that previous workplace learning programmes have not led to any notable gains in literacy and numeracy.

As someone who has been involved in these programmes, I would argue it is not that they necessarily failed, but that in-work learning was poorly targeted and there was not a comprehensive strategy to deal with the sheer scale of the problem.


Harvey Young is chairman of the National Consortium of Colleges and Providers

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