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Addressing the mid-level skills gap and improving opportunities for low paid workers

November 8, 2017 12:51 PM
By Rebecca Taylor in Liberal Democrat Voice

It is widely recognised that the UK has a mid-level skills gap, which means employers can struggle to recruit for medium skilled occupations. At the same time, it can be hard for established workers (those over 25) to retrain or upskill if they aren't supported by their employer or can't self-fund.

In my day job at University College London working on a cross-disciplinary research programme addressing issues of justice and equality, I commissioned a researcher to prepare a report investigating this topic. Specifically, the report looks at the non-university skills gap many employers face and the routes to undertaking technical and vocational education for the over 25s in England.

The report "Routes to Opportunity - Addressing the non-university skills gap" reveals that while employers face a well-documented mid-level skills gap, established workers face barriers to upskilling and retraining to undertake medium skilled occupations.

To me it seems crazy that we're failing to address the mid-level skills gap and failing to provide low paid workers with opportunities to upskill/retrain to improve their employment prospects and earning potential. Solving the latter will go some way to solving the former!

Other key findings of the report include:

  • Low paid workers in unskilled jobs, who would benefit most from re-training/upskilling, are often unable to do so because of insufficient opportunities and funding.

  • The welfare system does not support established workers to upskill or retrain.

  • Many potential learners are unaware of support that does exist for established workers to upskill or retrain.

  • The Brexit vote is already discouraging EU workers in medium skilled occupations from staying in the UK or moving here. Should hiring EU workers with mid-level skills become more difficult in future, this could exacerbate the problems employers currently face at least in the short to medium term.

I believe this also links to the sentiment which drove some people to vote Leave, namely those who felt (often not unfairly) they weren't being given sufficient opportunities in education and/or employment. Leaving the EU will of course do nothing to address these problems, but that doesn't mean that the problems don't deserve a response.

Other EU countries are far better at providing technical and vocational education than we Brits and it's not seen as inferior to going to university, merely a different but equally valid option. This situation has no doubt contributed to attracting EU workers with mid-level skills to come and work in the UK. Fewer people go to university in e.g. Germany, but the German workforce is more highly skilled and productive than our own. We could learn something from our European neighbours in this respect!

Unfortunately our current government is too busy in-fighting and struggling to deliver the Brexitopia some of their ministers promised, to do more than vacuously repeat the slogan "a country that works for everyone". There's no actual action to address genuine grievances that were aired in the EU referendum, only soundbites.

This report will be launched at a breakfast event on Wednesday 6 December 2017 in UCL's Institute of Education. This open access event is free of charge to attend, but if you would like to attend, please kindly register in advance.

I'm very pleased that our very own Sir Vince Cable will be speaking at the launch event. Sir Vince is one of the few heavyweight politicians who talks about non-university education; pretty much everyone else (especially the Labour party) talk almost exclusively about getting disadvantaged kids into university. That is of course a laudable aim and I don't disagree with it, but it ignores the 60% of people who don't go to university and does nothing to address the mid-level skills gap.

There is both a moral and economic case to solve this problem and I'm hoping that this report (with Vince's help) will generate sufficient attention to get the political commitment needed to address the mid-level skills gap and improve opportunities for low paid workers.

* Rebecca Taylor is a member of Islington LibDems and the former MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.