The Chancellor shows off his skills, but where were the ones which really matter?

 
Wed 03 Dec 2014

Blog - By Nick Isles, Deputy Principal, Milton Keynes College.

Watching the Autumn Statement from the Chancellor, George Osborne, this afternoon, was a bit like queuing up for a visit to Santa as the presents are handed out.  There were gifts for taxpayers, gifts for everyone who hates the banks, gifts for people going on holiday, gifts for those buying and selling houses.  And for young people trying to gain the skills they need to forge useful careers, “Sorry, little boy; my sack appears to be empty.”

The Chancellor did mention the word “skills” very early on in his peroration but as it turned out, he had other skills in mind.  The excellent investments in big research projects, for engineering for example, and the announcement of student loans for post-graduate students are entirely welcome and positive.  However they will do absolutely nothing for the 50% of young people who attend Further Education colleges like Milton Keynes.

Everybody offers special pleading for their sector.  Everybody thinks the value of what they do could be so greatly enhanced with just a bit more cash.  The problem is that those with the loudest voices in our society are unfamiliar with FE, have very little notion of what we do and certainly little understanding of why it is important to them.

Britain is not working as well as it might.  Yes, the country boasts handsome growth figures when measured against its direct competitors.  Yes, deficit reduction has been faster (albeit from a higher starting point) than everywhere else.  Yes, job creation has been excellent since the credit crunch.  Where we really fall down is in productivity terms, the time it takes to make the things we make in order to earn our communal living.  British productivity lags behind that of the Eurozone.  It takes us until Friday every week to have ready to market the same number of widgets of every variety as it takes our European competitors.  Until and unless we invest in the skills that business needs this gap may continue to widen.

At this point you might think it churlish of me not to be jumping up and down for joy at the announcement in the statement that National Insurance contributions will be abolished for young people doing apprenticeships.  Certainly, reducing the costs to business of employment and training is to be applauded.  The government has been trying in recent years to encourage employers to shoulder more of the cost of apprenticeships and to date, the jury is out.  Moreover the change only affects apprentices aged between twenty-one and twenty-five.  According to the Treasury, an employer paying an apprentice £12,000 a year will save £500.  If the apprentice’s pay reaches £16,000 the employer will save £1,000.  The question is, for how many will that saving be enough to encourage them to recruit?

The problem is that regardless of shaving a few pounds from the cost of an apprentice, an employer will only take one on if they’re going to learn the right skills to a good enough standard to make such engagement worthwhile.  Identifying the right potential apprentice for the right employer involves time and expertise and providing them with the right information, advice and guidance – a special skill in itself.  Training demands top quality teaching from staff with relevant and current industry knowledge and experience (you wouldn’t want your future car mechanic to be trained by someone whose expertise pre-dates under-the-bonnet computerisation for example).  FE has already seen budgets slashed by 22% since 2010 and all the mood music suggests that trend is set to continue.  That can only mean skills shortages are likely to increase, competitiveness and productivity will falter.  If we don’t invest in skills now all those other boosts and encouragements the Chancellor has given may not be enough to keep Britain growing.

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