Skills Policy – is the best policy for government to do little?

I have just read a very interesting review on skills policy sponsored by InsightEast and written by Professor Ewart Keep from the ESRC’s Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance.A liberally educated person meets new ideas with curiosity and fascination. An illiberally educated person meets new ideas with fear. – James B. Stockdale

This paper casts severe doubt on the benefit of public funding of skills development. He shows with great clarity the issues, contradictions and some myths inherent in skills development planning. Whilst it is focussed mainly on the policies of the last UK government, having been written in the early days of the current government, the thrust of the conclusions will still hold.

Here are a few of the conclusions and issues:

  • Matching skills demand to supply is complex, problematic and probably hard to measure with any accuracy.
  • There is no automatic relationship between skill levels and productivity
  • There is a conflict between a government desire to fund just enough skilled people and a business sector desire for a surplus of skilled people to provide choice and to reduce wage pressures.
  • The bulk of jobs in the future are likely to be low skill, low wage jobs.
  • If we use wage premium as the measure (e.g. for why we need to fund greater access to education), then it is likely that low wage, but socially very beneficial jobs, will suffer, workers and classroom assistants.

There are many more. The report is well written, to the point, very clear – and comes with pages of references if you wish to check the sources!

My question is where does this take us? A large part of regeneration policy is focussed on skills improvement. It would appear from this report, that time spent trying to plan this, is time mostly wasted. It is obvious that skilled workers are still needed, so, if forward planning raises as many problems as it solves, what are we to do?

Perhaps part of the answer is to accept that planning is not possible and then adapt the systems (education, government, etc.) to encourage businesses and people to accept that flexibility and lifelong learning is the norm. I know that I have had three very different career phases, and in each I have needed to adapt, and then adopt a continuous learning approach to everything I do.

This thinking is in line with the supply chain approach advocated by Peter Cappelli in a HBR Article on this very issue. “The vast majority of U.S. employers, according to surveys, have just given up trying to forecast or plan. But we also have to address the problem that the business environment is highly uncertain. So rather than pretending that long-term plans will work, we have to find ways to be responsive and adapt to that uncertain environment.”

In his book Talent on Demand, Peter Cappelli develops this supply chain analogy further: “Managing supply chains is about managing uncertainty and variability. This same uncertainty exists inside companies with regard to talent development. Companies rarely know what they will be building five years out and what skills they will need to make that happen; they also don’t know if the people they have in their pipelines are going to be around.” The flexibility of response over the rigidity of planning.

This brings us to a second thought. We need to free up the formal education system – school, college, university. If we can’t forecast demand, then it seems sensible to be much more flexible. Currently, it frequently takes 2-3 years to get a new qualification approved. It would make a lot of sense to me to find the way to reduce that down to 2-3 months. It would then be much easier to adapt to the needs of businesses and students. New modules could be quickly added to courses, be they school, college or university. One benefit of this approach, could be a closer involvement between education and business, which would be mutually beneficial.

Finally, the UK used to have a deserved reputation for innovation and flexibility of thought. There is some evidence that a rigid core curriculum in schools, and the use of exam results as the measure to prove the capability of schools, may be damaging this. It appears to be more important to be able to parrot the correct answer to an exam question than to be able to think through a problem or to take a critical (and personal) viewpoint on a topic. Plus, despite all the planning and other good work in the past 20 years, we still have only 50% of the adult population capable of doing maths above the level expected of an 11 year old.

The system isn’t working – we need some new thinking (or perhaps the reinvention of old thinking)?


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