ENSURING LIFELONG LEARNING IS A KEY PART OF THE UK ECONOMY
When I was younger, my grandmother was always able to pluck out a Welsh proverb from thin air to describe any situation.
One of the ones she was particularly fond of quoting, especially when I came back home from university, was “Nerth gwlad, ei gwybodaeth” or roughly translated, “a nation’s strength is its knowledge”.
As this nation looks set to go through another period of change and uncertainty, that proverb rings truer every day and the importance of the development of skills and knowledge has become even more critical to the competitiveness of the UK economy.
The importance of the challenges we face have been pointed out in a number of recent studies. For example, a survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that, at an owner-manager level, the low levels of management and leadership competences is affecting productivity by having a negative effect on the growth potential of small firms.
In fact, only a quarter of smaller businesses had undertaken management training in the previous year with a quarter having undertaken no management training at all. And it not only owner-managers who are losing out with only 20 per cent of small businesses seeking external management training for their employees.
This shows that the scale of some of the problems facing businesses as they look to upskill to face the challenges of an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Unfortunately, some have argued that whilst there is a clear demand for upgrading skills, the education sector in the country has yet to come up with a comprehensive approach to dealing with these issues at all levels. And whilst most of third-level education in this country is geared towards providing new entrants into the workforce, it is easy to forget that nine out of ten of the current workforce will still be working in a decade.
Certainly, it cannot be assumed that education finishes with school or university and that increasing access to lifelong learning will allow workers to improve their skills for the benefit of their employer or to shift into new industries.
But this is not easy to achieve and a study commissioned by the Department for Education showed that the current skills shortage could get worse because the number of adults in training or education has fallen to its lowest level on record (from 46 per cent in 2001 to 37 per cent in 2018) with most people surveyed saying that they did not plan to undertake any training in the next three years either.
Given this, perhaps the key message for policymakers is how they align the world of work and the world of education so that demand and supply reflect each other more closely. Indeed, the fact that only a fifth of businesses across the UK are creating partnerships with the education sector to try and address key challenges is enormously disappointing.\
For Wales, this may present a real opportunity to ensure that government, businesses and educational providers work more closely together to deliver a comprehensive and workable approach to improving skills in the workplace.
This means a talent revolution must take place that involves the rethinking of education systems that are fit for purpose in the 21st Century. In some cases, this will involve closer co-operation between organisations that would normally see each other as competitors so that they leverage the expertise of different stakeholders and ensure that they meet the various skills challenges.
In particular, the artificial barrier between formal education and applied training must be broken so that there is a seamless two-way transfer of knowledge between academic institutions and business organisations. More relevantly, our universities may need to change to meet this challenge.
With Brexit seemingly on the mind of every politician at the moment, it may be difficult for those running this country to think of anything else. But once that issue is settled, it is absolutely vital that this nation responds positively to these challenges going forward and ensures that the right solutions are supported to help develop the skills required to grow the economy.