Lib Dem peer, Baroness Sharp warns ahead of her House of Lords debate, that the “twin challenges of poor productivity and needing to upskill‘ an ageing pollution will not be addressed through increased apprenticeships alone.
Shirley Williams making her valedictory speech during this debate accords well with one of my main themes, namely that during the course of the next decade people are going to have to work much longer in life.
Williams herself is a splendid example of someone who has kept up-to-date and continued to contribute substantially to society. But with technology moving so fast many will find their jobs radically altered and to remain productive will need to reskill and retrain possibly several times during their working lives.
At the same time, the UK faces a fundamental problem of poor productivity. France, Germany, the USA, even Italy, have higher productivity levels. Yet in spite of 30 years emphasis on skills training, we still have a workforce where 20 per cent fall into the low skills category while we face chronic shortages of the vital intermediate skills in the technical and professional areas so necessary to raising productivity.
The Government’s present answer is apprenticeships, both for young people and for older employees, based on Lib Dem initiatives within the Coalition. We fully support the emphasis on higher level and graduate apprenticeships, however, apprenticeships are not enough on their own. Confronted by the twin challenges of poor productivity and needing to upskill and retrain an ageing population we need a wider, more comprehensive skills strategy.
On the one hand we need to treat these issues along community lines pulling together employers, universities, colleges, the DWP, local authorities and community services to provide more joined-up local partnerships.
And we need to provide ways and means whereby the individual – not just the employer – can play a part on the ‘demand’ side. This means harnessing new technologies to provide, as with MOOCS, an “anytime, anywhere” availability. Liberal Democrats are keen to see something along the lines of individual learning accounts considered again.
It also means recreating something of the infrastructure of adult education which over the last two decades has been badly eroded. We have a proud tradition in this country of part-time study dating back to the Mechanics Institutes of the 19th century.
Now part-time study, whether in colleges or universities, even the Open University, has experienced a dramatic fall in participation and to date there are few incentives to encourage its pursuit. Likewise community learning, so important for moving people into education and skills activities, for keeping them fit and well into old age and for promoting social cohesion, struggles to maintain its presence amidst austerity.
Liberal Democrats have a proud tradition of supporting life-long learning. We are anxious to see the foundations we laid in Coalitions built upon and not destroyed.