How the levy could tackle youth unemployment

Coronavirus is a no win game, that goes without saying. One of the losing groups that worries me most is the young, particularly those finishing education this year and entering the world of work.

Not only are we seeing a significant rise in those that are out of work and claiming benefits, we are also seeing the number of job vacancies fall to the lowest level on record. At the same time, more and more employers are reducing their apprenticeship entry as the focus more on maintaining existing jobs. That’s a grim environment to come into the world of work, for even the most optimistic.

In response the TUC have drawn up proposals for a job guarantee scheme to support employers in creating roles for at least six months. Whilst it is a nice idea, there is something much simpler and closer to hand. The apprenticeship levy.

Employers have, for a number of years, repeatedly asked for the ability to allocate some or part of salaries against the levy in order to increase the number of apprenticeships they can offer. Governments have been reluctant to adopt this approach, for some understandable reasons, but if I’m honest, others that sound more like obfuscated fiscal management. At a time when we are facing into such significant issue, all previous rules should be put to one side.

A fixed term scheme that allowed a percentage of apprenticeship salaries to be allocated against the levy as long as it was used to create additional apprenticeship roles would have a number of key benefits:

  • it is simple, easy and quick to deploy. The money is already with employers anyway, so it could be stood up by September
  • it provides young people (and others) with an average of two years employment and training, building skills, obtaining qualifications and learning about the world of work
  • it provides a future workforce, ready to deploy into the economy as things slowly start to improve and rebalance
  • apprenticeships standards are monitored and approved, ensuring that the quality of education is maintained for all
  • it is regionally agnostic, wherever there are employers with the ability to employ, there are opportunities for young people
  • it creates jobs in the short term and puts money back into the economy through wages

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t issues that would need to be worked out, how we ensure that employers don’t play fast and loose with funding, how we make sure that the apprenticeships created are beneficial to the economy after recovery and of course how we make sure that the young people get the quality of experience that is beneficial to them in the long term.

But at a time when we are faced with challenges beyond our experience, we need ideas, schemes that bring creativity, ambition and hope. An employer driven recovery, focused on skills and qualifications for the young? It has to be worth a shot.

Technical education isn’t second class

Anyone who has followed this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a massive proponent of technical education as a worthy alternative to traditional academic paths. Back in 1995 I was working as a lecturer in a Further Education college where I could see the energy and excitement that students had to vocational courses. Far from being the dumping ground of the formal education system, it was full of career minded young people who wanted to crack on.

The extension of the Higher Education system over the last two decades has fundamentally misunderstood both the desires of learners and the needs of business and the economy. At the heart of this is, I believe, an innate snobbery and superiority complex that led policy makers to believe that if every child did A-levels and went on to University it would be in the betterment of society and a high skilled society. This false belief is also why I’m also opposed to universal free higher education.

It is also why I’m delighted to see the development of T-Levels as an alternative academic route for 16-18 year olds in the UK. If you don’t know, the T-level is a technical alternative to the A-level and is a two-year college or school based qualification designed specifically around a technical profession. One of which will be HR, which I’m on the panel to help design the requirements.

One of the most challenging aspects of the T-level proposals is the 45 days work experience a student needs to undertake during their studies. If you think about it, it absolutely makes sense for employers that a young person has not only learnt the theory, but had a chance to see it applied in the workplace. But it requires employers to plan ahead for the application in 2020 and 2022 to make sure that the opportunities are available.

So my ask is this. If you’re an HR professional or business leader and you’re constantly talking about skills gaps and the lack of technical skills in the economy. Start to think ahead, explore the T-levels that are being developed, think about the opportunities that you could create, engage with local education providers and help to make this new route to qualification a success, not just in the HR field, but all the other areas that T-Levels will operate in.

As I’ve said so many times before, you can sit on your hands and complain about skills, education and development. Or you can step up and make change happen. The choice, and the resultant outcome, is yours.

Find out more here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/introduction-of-t-levels/introduction-of-t-levels

https://youtu.be/Bv3zpEAm3sk

 

Qualifying success

I’m currently in-between receiving A-level results and GCSEs for my two kids. Having been through the exam period with them and now awaiting results, I’m reminded how frankly barbaric this process is. As a means of assessing potential and capability, it ranks up there with Russian roulette.

Having spent 25 years in the HR profession, I can’t think of a time when I have knowingly and meaningfully taken the school exam results of a job applicant into consideration. As a candidate I’ve never stated my exam results on my CV, nor have I been asked by a prospective employer to detail the grades or results.

Yet when I talk to my kids, they’re told that the exams and their results are critical to their success in life and in work. They’re told that if they don’t fulfil their potential in their exams, they won’t fulfil their potential in life and this is something that I’ve heard from other parents and young people from across the country. This belief is as dangerous as it is wrong.

As a long standing champion of disregarding educational qualifications in the recruitment process, I believe business has a big role to play in changing this dialogue. Our job is to identify potential, to seek out talent and to build capability – yet we know that there is no direct correlation between this an academic results or educational establishment. This is why not only should we fundamentally limit the use of academic qualifications in assessment, but we should be open and clear that we do.

Imagine a young person that has accepted the view that qualifications determine future success, receiving results that are below the average or below their expectations. At 16 or 18 they are building a belief system that is already closing down opportunities, they are already limiting their potential, when they’re not even a quarter of the way into their life.

Education is about learning, it’s about curiosity and growth. The moment it becomes about disappointment and containment, it has fundamentally lost its way.

 

Technical skills need qualifications too…

My very first, post university, job was as a lecturer of Psychology. I worked evening at the local Further Education (FE) college teaching GCSE and A-level Psychology to adult returners who had either not got the qualifications in their youth, or decided they wanted more later on. The college was a well-known establishment in the seaside location, with a particularly strong focus on caring qualifications, engineering and professions like boat building.

Many of you will know that the FE sector was financially and directionally squeezed over many years, part of which (in my humble opinion) was an intellectual arrogance that aspirations should be greater for our young people. It is no surprise that the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector coincided with the diminishing of FE.

Fast forward 20 years and we are debating the lack of technical skills in the economy and the need to increase the focus on technical education. The Government announced, this weekend, the first colleges to be offering the new T-levels, to start in 2020. I’m hugely encouraged by this step and I genuinely believe these new qualifications could play a significant role in opening up career paths to young people. But only if business gets behind them.

In the coverage of the announcement, I was pretty disappointed to read the following quote from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham, “Parents should be wary of encouraging their children to take them. It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures.”

One could easily fire the same warning to a whole host of A-levels and numerous degrees – the latter of which would cost you tens of thousands of pounds to obtain. It is also worryingly reminiscent of the early response to apprenticeships – who would want one of those?

Amidst the intellectual and class snobbery that will present in the objections to any type of “vocational training”, there lies a real and genuine challenge to employers. We need to embrace these new routes to qualifications and show not only do they lead to good quality jobs, but meaningful careers as well.

We can’t bemoan a skills gap and then ignore attempts to close it, we can’t worry about future technical needs and not embrace change. If you’re an employer of people then I suggest you have a good look at both the T-level qualifications and the routes to qualification through apprenticeship. At the end of the day, technical skills need qualifications too, and at the moment they are few and far between.