The alignment of vocational education and training

Source: PSE April/May 2019

How can vocational education and training match workforce skills with the needs of the economy? Senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Anna Round reports.

The alignment of vocational education and training with workforce skills and needs of the economy is vital for economic and social justice, and the design of skills systems reflects its importance. Employer engagement, partnership working, and work-based learning all play a part, as does the decentralisation of skills governance.

An increasingly sophisticated range of technological tools use data to draw up detailed accounts of skills priorities for specific roles, sectors and places – and provide forecasts of skills demand over the next few years. This intelligence is invaluable in planning learning and skills policy, as well as for people seeking to progress into or within work.

But the global economy, the UK’s place within it, and the nature of work itself are undergoing rapid transformation. The world will look very different when people now entering the workforce find themselves at mid-career. What long-term trends will impact on skills demand, and how can provision meet these challenges?

Increasing longevity means that many people will want – or need – to work for longer. But jobs that make heavy physical or emotional demands may not be practical for older workers. Mid- or late-career opportunities to train and retrain must be accessible and appropriate for local labour markets. As well as letting individuals switch track without a drastic fall in job quality, they will prevent a wealth of skills and experience, gained through decades of employment, from simply dropping out of the economy.

But it isn’t just older workers who will need to reskill. Technological developments such as automation and digitisation are already reducing demand for some skills and opening up new types of work. They will also change – and continue to change – the skills demands for many established jobs as tasks, rather than jobs, are automated. At the same time, digitisation is becoming more pervasive right across the economy, its importance growing even for sectors and businesses that have traditionally had little involvement with ICT.

Research suggests that resilience to these changes depends on widespread ‘upskilling.’ Workers whose jobs are displaced or reshaped need the skills to manufacture, maintain, and manage technological systems, and to work alongside automated or digitised processes. Creativity, problem solving, innovating, and human interaction will all be in demand; the ability to combine these with scientific knowledge even more so. The UK also needs the expert skills to drive and disseminate digital innovation, but ICT professional skills are in short supply.

Decarbonisation is another area where effective skills provision can both help to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and create a great deal of high-quality, sustainable employment. In parts of the UK that have historically depended on industries such as coal, oil and gas, the creation of much-needed ‘green jobs’ offers a route to both social and environmental renewal. The associated skills provision must be as innovative and systematic as decarbonisation itself if these opportunities are to become real for workers and businesses.

The skills to manage new kinds of career paths – longer, potentially more varied and less stable – are also important. Careers advice in schools is benefiting from substantial innovation, but among adults, awareness of vocational education is still relatively limited. Whether it’s delivered in schools, to unemployed people or through HR departments, guidance needs to look beyond the immediate horizon. If nobody has a ‘job for life’ any more, everyone has a career.

Strengthening the long-term focus of our skills development frameworks, without compromising vital provision for the here and now, will not, and probably should not, come cheap. Over time, investment in adult learning has shifted away from government and towards individual learners and businesses. Yet even with the Apprenticeship Levy in place, employer spend on training remains below the European average, and the number of people starting an apprenticeship fell (for the second year running) in 2017-18. Advanced Learner Loan applications dropped by 13%.

The evidence is strong for economic benefits to individuals and businesses as a result of skills investment. But this argument is unlikely to provide either sufficient incentive, or sufficiently timely incentive, to drive reskilling on the scale required to meet these long-term challenges, or to make sure that it is strategic enough to make the most of new opportunities for local and national economies.

Substantial government investment is needed along with policies to address long-term skills needs that may not be on the current radar of learners and employers. To respond to large-scale, fast moving social and economic shifts, skills provision needs to be funded in agile and responsive ways; a range of incentives and subsidies for individuals and businesses, facilitation for small employers to work together, and funding that recognises time as a limited resource are all effective options.

Such investment will position the UK to be at the forefront of developments such as digitisation and decarbonisation, and to use these opportunities to address regional and social imbalances. It will also reduce the potential costs to government (such as unemployment, deprivation and regional imbalance) if we are not well prepared for a changing global economy with a new and evolving set of skills demands.

Skills supply alone cannot create skills demand, and skills provision needs to work hand in hand with national and local Industrial Strategies that look to the medium- and long-term horizons. The Industrial Strategy represents a crucial opportunity to improve skills utilisation and support employers (including England’s large SME population) to develop their workforce’s skills in ways that raise innovation and productivity. For example, by embedding digital technologies across a range of sectors and business processes. Proposals such as stronger institutions for vocational learning and the National Retraining Scheme are moves in the right direction. 

Arguably, the most important skill of all is the willingness to learn and continue learning. This is the curiosity that drives entrepreneurs, that supports innovation and digitisation across economies, and that facilitates major changes such as decarbonisation. Within sectors, an ‘underpinning’ grasp of key theories and principles also makes it easier to adapt and to acquire new knowledge on an ongoing basis. The new T Levels offer a welcome shift towards this within the ‘technical’ curriculum.

We also need to reconsider the relationship between work and learning with an element of ongoing training and upskilling considered as a core task in the majority of jobs – which is resourced to reflect this. Investment in workforce skills needs to sit alongside investment in physical infrastructure or equipment. And skills should be viewed (and funded) as a co-created resource between employers, employees, and government, with lifelong learning as the norm, not the individualised exception.


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