The key to bridging the skills gap is staring us in the face

We know colleges are key to bridging skills gaps and the spring budget is an opportunity to put them at the heart of our economic growth plan, says Peter Aldous

We know colleges are key to bridging skills gaps and the spring budget is an opportunity to put them at the heart of our economic growth plan, says Peter Aldous

1 Mar 2023, 17:00

Bridges are some of the great engineering wonders in our country. The Iron Bridge in Shropshire is the oldest cast iron crossing in the world, a marvel dating back to 1779. The Humber Bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge between 1981 and 1998. Indeed, in Lowestoft in my constituency work is well under way on the Gull Wing Bridge, which once completed will be the largest rolling bascule bridge in the world.

Why all this talk of bridges? Well, a bridge has the purpose of making something impassable passable. Whether it is fording a great river, traversing a mighty gorge or crossing a motorway. The bridge is the solution to the problem of navigating a gap we would otherwise struggle to cross.

Sitting on the green benches, we regularly hear about the skills gaps we face and how they are a major problem for our economy. It is a challenge which has spanned Conservative, Coalition and Labour governments. Last autumn, the ONS estimated there were almost 1.2 million job vacancies which went unfilled. While this is partly testament to the record low unemployment we now enjoy in this country, it means many employers cannot find the skilled people they need to fill posts.

While this problem has proved hard to overcome, the solution is staring us in the face. Our fantastic colleges and independent training providers, which serve communities the length and breadth of the country, are there to bridge skills gaps. The very purpose of further education is to provide younger and older people alike with the training they need to get on in the workplace.

I am proud to chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Further Education and Lifelong Learning and I am always astounded by the excellent work East Coast College does in my own constituency. But colleges and the wider FE sector could do so much more if they were given the means to fulfil their full potential.

The sector could do so much more if they were given the means

Today, I joined a panel discussion in parliament to explore these issues in greater detail. Clearly, the issue of funding is high on the priority list for college principals, but there are non-monetary ways to help the sector too.

The Future Skills Coalition is a new partnership between some of the major players in the FE sector: the Association of Colleges, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers and City & Guilds. They have a clear sense of the priorities to tackle this problem: A right to lifelong learning; fair, accessible and effective funding; and a national strategy to support local, inclusive growth.

The Conservatives have laid strong foundations for this. Policymakers now understand and value the FE sector more. However, the autumn budget did not deliver a funding boost for colleges, despite a sizeable package for schools to deal with inflationary pressures. It was encouraging that the Chancellor announced a review of FE reform implementation by Sir Michael Barber, and it is very important that this is quickly followed by a positive statement on revenue funding, so that colleges’ concerns that Whitehall does not understand their worth are allayed.

I am hopeful the Chancellor will make colleges and the FE sector the keystone of his plans to boost growth and increase productivity in his spring statement on 15 March. Jeremy Hunt recognises the issue but is in the unenviable position of having to make tough decisions for the sake of our future prosperity. I urge the Treasury to consider that the return on investment for any additional funding for colleges will be vast both economically and socially, as the lives of our constituents are forever improved by access to education and training.

A gap is a problem which invites ingenuity to bridge. With the blueprint already laid out by our colleges, I am sure this is not a bridge too far for the Chancellor.

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  1. albert wright

    I would strongly support further investment in FE, preferably by shifting funding from Universities, on condition that some of the money is spent on improving the teaching skills and knowledge of their tutors and an upgrade of their equipment.

    Many FE colleges have attractive buildings but they also need able and inspiring teachers and a modern curriculum to ensure their students are given the skills that are in demand today and will be in demand for the next 2 decades.

  2. Brunel

    Using bridges as a metaphor is an interesting hook for an article.

    However, bridges are built on the premise of having known positions where you can place stable foundations to facilitate the connection between one position and another. Without knowing the span of the gap a bridge or knowing whether you have the necessary materials could result in falling into a metaphorical chasm.

    Growing gaps present a particular risk for bridging.

    Perhaps all this really is is just a fluff piece in the run up to the Spring Budget and the promise of a metaphorical budget increase.