Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

British workers for British jobs

A future Labour government must shake-up skills on the scale the last transformed the NHS

‘We toured the country to talk about immigration and came back talking about skills’, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer tells this magazine (page 20) in his exclusive interview. Putting together this edition went on a similar journey. Whether it was commissions on Brexit, the economy, the class gap and industrial strategy, one thing recurs. Brexit Britain needs a step change in not just the skills offer to the potential workforce but to the working age population who are paying the price of poor planning and, even worse, execution of tertiary education in the United Kingdom.

Before people suggest otherwise, Starmer was not arguing that when the public raise immigration they mean something else. They do not. It is a folly when the left suggest otherwise and try to change the question. The member of parliament for Holborn and St Pancras was reflecting on the work he did as shadow immigration minister. He heard voters’ frustration that employers appear to pass over British workers and bring people in from abroad and from the employers exasperated by the lack of available talent. Evidence presented by Thomas Aubrey of the Centre for Progressive Capitalism (page 24) identifies that 48 per cent of UK technical job vacancies in 2015-16 – jumping to 76 per cent for manufacturing – were difficult to fill due to skills shortages, reinforces this point.

It should be acknowledged that skills provision is a class issue. Working-class communities are less likely to have a sixth form attached to their secondary school – despite Andrew Adonis’ best efforts. Parents who have previously been to university also remain more likely to guide their children towards higher education and confer a status on academia that we are yet to achieve for a more technical route. Manuel Cortes (page 6) makes a valid point about the contrasting roles in the economy for those with second language skills. On the continent, bilingual abilities are far more commonplace and make well-paid work available for those without a university education in a way that just is not true for British young people. Those who have equivalent skills in the UK are, overwhelmingly, graduates. This can be put right. As Cortes notes, Britain’s growing ‘travel, tourism and hospitality industries need frontline staff with competent foreign language skills’. However, any restrictions on freedom of movement will make this worse – he is right that ‘it is hard to conceive how Britain could produce more language graduates to plug the additional Brexit skill gap’.

Aubrey points to a robust set of solutions that can be applied if the government was so minded. First, a greater focus on careers advice, which has been virtually abolished by the Tories, making it hard to encourage students to match their course choices with well-paid employment later in life. Secondly, capital funding for further education, an area which has seen little to no investment in its infrastructure since Gordon Brown’s government. Thirdly, giving local enterprise partnerships the data and resources to plug local skills gaps. Fourthly, reviewing the funding formula for technical courses, ensuring there are no incentives for colleges or students to opt for courses that are unlikely to benefit them or the wider economy and community. Finally, involving employers in the commissioning of further education courses. Although it was tried through learning and skills councils created under Labour, it must be returned to and made to work.

Many will sigh at the ‘better skills in response to globalisation’ argument. And they are right to. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both focused heavily on it rhetorically – it was part of the Third Way’s important message of hope and aspiration. Their governments tried valiantly. They both succeeded at turning around primary education – both improving basic literacy and numeracy – and secondary education, with charter/academy schools and programmes like Teach America/Teach First. Equally, they opened universities to more working-class people. For all the fears and anecdotal stories, the increase in fees – and therefore places available – has meant more people going to university in the UK. Disproportionately those new entrants come from previously under-represented groups. But the explosion in places is not all positive – both the state and individuals pay a high price for this extra capacity.

Tertiary education and conventional skills sectors did not undergo the same transformation. Initiatives like UnionLearn were positive, but limited. Lifelong learning accounts were attempted and abandoned. There was not the aggressive path of continued professional development charted for those who had previously not taken an academic route. Aiding employers to provide better in-work training or removing barriers to additional lifelong learning needs curating, not just funding. It is where an active state, with an active industrial policy, can come into its own. With the Tories wedded to fiscal retrenchment and an antipathy to government, it is terrain on which only Labour can truly deliver.

Globalisation has had some dire consequences. But ‘left populism’ will not be the answer. We have been here before. Brown should never have said ‘British jobs for British workers’ in his conference speech in 2007. Had he said ‘British workers for British jobs’ and embarked on a skills extravaganza like the UK had never before seen, things could have been different.

Here is the key. Half measures will not suffice. It has to be done like never before. A future Labour government – if there is one – must shake up skills on the scale the last Labour government saved and transformed the National Health Service.

Experts matter – and they tell us that this skills revolution is needed. But expectations matter too – many of these voters and businesses feel that have been promised this all before. The voters know what they mean and mean what they say. They want change.

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