If we are to compete in today’s global economy against low-wage countries such as China, industry needs to have a highly-skilled technician workforce. Many other areas of our national life, whether it is hospitals, the armed services, or agriculture, today also depend on highly-skilled technicians if they are to operate efficiently.

But the simple truth is that today we do not have the highly-skilled technician workforce that we need. International comparisons suggest the UK performs relatively well when it comes to graduate-level and higher skills. But at the sub-degree, skilled technician level our performance is appalling. By 2020, the UK is predicted to rank just 28th of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing these intermediate-level skills.

But we do not need international comparisons to throw into sharp relief the problems we are facing: our own employer surveys consistently paint a bleak picture. A survey last year by the CBI and Pearson found 47 per cent of construction employers and 37 per cent of manufacturing employers reporting current difficulties in recruiting technicians. Across all sectors, 46 per cent of employers reported suffering or expecting soon to suffer a shortage of technicians.

That we find now ourselves in this position is as unsurprising as it is depressing. It is over a hundred years since the first report was produced which highlighted the failures of technical education in the UK, the Samuelson Royal Commission on Technical Instruction which reported in 1882-4, and since the 1940s there have been very many attempts to reform the system. In the last 35 years alone there have been 28 major Acts relating to vocational and further education and skills training in the UK.

Young people will only work hard to get a qualification, and value it highly when they get it, if employers when recruiting give priority to individuals who possess it.

These have all been unsuccessful because they tinkered with technical education instead of learning from what works in other countries, and then embedding an easy-to-navigate system that everyone understands but which is flexible enough to respond to a changing economy. As a result of these past failures, at the same time that UK productivity is suffering due to a serious shortage of technicians, over 400,000 16-24 year olds are unemployed. It is hard to believe that none of these young people have the ability and motivation to train as technicians if only given good opportunities to do so.

Last year the UK government asked me to chair a panel of experts to look at how and why our competitors seem to be doing things better than us and how technical education in England could be put on par with the best in the world. Our findings were clear: successful education systems elsewhere in the world have, as a central feature, a well-understood national system of qualifications that works in the labour market.

Young people will only work hard to get a qualification, and value it highly when they get it, if employers when recruiting give priority to individuals who possess it.

It is only this labour market currency that gives technical courses the prestige they possess in high-performing countries such as Norway, Germany, Netherlands, Singapore and others. Any talk of governments being able to endow technical education with prestige – or parity of esteem with academic options – without first ensuring its genuine currency with employers is nonsense.

To achieve such market currency for technical qualifications, employer engagement in course design cannot simply be an afterthought.

Instead, while it is the role of government to design the overall national system, it must be experts from industry who determine the knowledge, skills, and methods of assessment, for each qualification.

Equally, high-quality work placements must be part of every technical qualification, as they are in other countries, with the government contributing to the cost of these placements for young people in recognition of the critical role they play in developing transferable skills which employers value.

In industries like engineering, construction, healthcare and finance, the most-skilled nations have clearly defined occupational routes that set out clear technical education standards, resulting in recognised national qualifications. Germany has six main routes for dual apprenticeships with around 320 national training standards.

The Netherlands has a total of eight technical routes but is aiming to reduce the number of technical programmes to approximately 170 main qualifications. In comparison, England has no specific routes and a ridiculous 22,140 certificates offered by 160 different awarding organisations. For example, someone aiming for a future career in plumbing has 33 qualifications to choose from – a bewildering prospect for employers and candidates alike.

Taking all of this evidence into consideration, the panel I chaired is recommending that a new set of 15 technical education routes is introduced in England.

This clear organising framework will cover all technician-level occupations where there is a substantial requirement for technical knowledge and practical skills. It will streamline the system substantially, and allow individuals and employers to see how college-based courses sit alongside apprenticeships as equally valid pathways to skilled employment. Most crucially however, it will give this country – for the first time – a national system of technical qualifications that works in the marketplace because it delivers the knowledge and skills employers need.

The proposals that we have made are essential if we are to compete effectively in world markets, and operate our public services efficiently. They are also important because they will provide many opportunities for our young people to gain the skills which will enable them to get better paid and more secure jobs. Our report is not only about industrial efficiency but also social mobility. And, finally, our proposals, I believe, provide an opportunity to reverse a hundred-year failure of our educational system, a prize surely worth fighting to achieve.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

One comment

  1. I think releasing this just as the FE sector take a well earned time out for their summer holiday is typical of current government strategy.
    The timing is similar to releasing medical contracts with Chilcott. Highly irresponsible for such a dramatic change.