Semta's Chief Executive Ann Watson shares her views on the latest news, policy, issues and events of interest to the engineering and advanced manufacturing sector. 


Thursday, 18 May 2017 00:00

Manifestos say employer ownership in skills is here to stay - now let's get it right

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A few weeks ago, when the general election was announced by the Prime Minister, I made a simple plea to the political parties – to resist the temptation to use skills as a political football, to finish what we’ve started, and to give the new system time to bed in.

Pleasingly, it seems from the parties’ election manifestos that this call – not just from Semta, but from industry and from other stakeholders in the skills arena – has been heeded. Neither of the two parties that could conceivably form a government, Labour and the Conservatives, is proposing to rip it all up and start again. Instead, each accepts the principles of employer ownership of standards and employer direction of funding, and each has proposed a few tweaks to help the new system to operate more smoothly.

It’s pleasing that both parties have recognised the change that automation is set to unleash on our labour market, and that both parties have proposed new policies which will help the workers of today to adapt to the changing labour market needs of tomorrow. Labour’s National Education Service and the Conservatives’ national retraining scheme offer different approaches, but the underlying principle remains the same: workers deserve to have the opportunity to reskill and the government has a role in facilitating it.

Both parties will retain the apprenticeship levy and the principle of employer direction of funding, and both parties are proposing interesting tweaks to how it can be used. The Conservatives are proposing that employers should be able to use their levy funds to place apprentices in their supply chains – something for which Semta and engineering employers have been making the case for some time – while Labour is proposing that the levy should be usable on pre-apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships have been high on the political agenda this decade, and both parties say they want a high-quality apprenticeships system which offers a valued alternative to academic routes into work. The Conservatives plan to retain the target for 3 million apprenticeship starts to 2020, while Labour argues that the Institute for Apprenticeships should have to report to the Secretary of State for Education every year on apprenticeship completion rates. Our sector’s argument has consistently been that we need three million quality apprenticeships, and that we cannot afford to dilute the quality we have in engineering apprenticeships as the price of increasing quantity.

There is again consensus on the importance of technical education to the UK’s future prosperity and ability to meet its skills needs. Technical education has for some time been starved of cash, so it’s welcome that the Conservatives will launch a review into the balance of tertiary education funding. Labour’s policy is perhaps more ambitious – the party would launch a commission on lifelong learning, with a view to integrating further and higher education.

Where there is divergence, however, is on the new Institutes of Technology. The Conservative Government we currently have has proposed their introduction, so it’s no surprise that the party’s manifesto makes a promise to open one in every ‘major’ city. Labour, however, plans to abandon plans for IoTs entirely and would instead redirect the money towards recruitment in further education colleges.

Whatever the structure the next government chooses, we need a skills system which accords due weight and equitable funding to technical routes, and which is effectively aligned with labour market need. There is much on skills in both parties’ manifestos to cheer and there is much in both that engineering employers would benefit from. The challenge for the next government, whatever its political composition, will be to make good on its skills policies in an age of Brexit - because we cannot make a success of Brexit if we don’t have the skilled workforce our employers need.

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