Workforce aging, skills and training

In its new report on managing an aging workforce, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development sets out an agenda for employers facing a predicted – and predictable – ‘war for talent’. In spite of the recession, the CIPD anticipates that UK employers will need to fill 13.5 million job vacancies in the next decade, but can expect only seven million young people to leave school and college. In current circumstances, immigrants are unlikely to fill this gap.

So employers must rely increasingly on older workers. CIPD recommends that its members follow three steps: building a business case to convince board members and senior managers that they need to plan for this predictable change; tackling head-on the myths and stereotypes of ageing; and making age a factor in your talent management strategy.

We can all expect to hear much more of these arguments in the years ahead. Whether they will shift deeply-held beliefs about the superior efficiency, trainability and energy of youth over age is another matter. More widely, there is the very real political problem of popular beliefs about the labour market: every time a firm sets out a strategy for attracting and retaining older workers, people are quick to protest that this means fewer jobs for the young. It is easy to show that this belief is hardly based on a serious analysis of endogenous economic growth factors. But as debates over immigrant workers show, it is quite another matter to convince voters, and therefore politicians, that the economy doesn’t play out as a zero sum game.

So politicians will be slow to take measures that might imply that they are ignoring young job-seekers; and many senior managers will firmly believe that old dogs are too set in their ways, and can’t be taught new clichés. Others will be more receptive to the CIPD approach, or will even be ahead of the game already.

What role does this imply for education and skills? For a start, as the CIPD notes and as many managers will acknowledge, older workers have built up a body of knowledge about their organisation and role. They will have worked out how to do their job, sometimes even despite the rather odd and changing demands of managers and regulatory bodies; they also have experience of knowledge-creation and sharing that is geared to the specific demands of their workplace. They often show great aptitude for sharing this knowledge with new workers, making them natural and obvious mentors for recently-recruited staff.

We need to understand what older workers already know, and persuade other stakeholders – senior managers particularly – not to fall into the trap of listing their deficits. But we should also be careful not to idealise older workers or romanticise the supposed wisdoms of age. Recent analyses of survey data, both in the UK and internationally, show just how far many in our older generations were penalised by attending schools that were weaker and less well-resourced than today.

Literacy and numeracy prove an interesting example of this. If you believe some newspapers, all young people today are illiterate, innumerate and thick, compared to an older generation who went to selective schools and paid attention. As any experienced adult educator knows, this is a myth. According to the National Research and Development Centre, differences in literacy level fall off particularly sharply after the age of fifty. Skills for Life survey data told a similar story for people aged 55-65, but also showed a rise in the proportion judged at entry level in both literacy and numeracy among people aged 45-54.

But if the Daily Mail view of basic skills is a myth, it is not entirely groundless. Alarmingly, the SfL data also showed a high proportion of 16-19 year olds were at entry level in both literacy and numeracy skills, suggesting that for this generation at least – who went to school under the last Conservative government – might be less literate and numerate than their older fellow-workers. The most recent SfL data at present are for the 2003 survey; BIS has not yet published detailed results of the 2011 survey.

Basic skills matter. We all know that deficit models should be avoided – but so should complacency and smugness. Workers with poor basic skills can all too easily be overlooked or rejected by managers after one look at their written communications. And there is some evidence that poor basic skills can impede participation in further training, if only because managers may think it a waste of time to send them on a course. We cannot hide for ever behind a blanket denunciation of deficit models.

As well as sometimes needing basic skills support, many older workers lack formal qualifications. While they may have developed abundant knowledge about their role, they find it difficult to persuade managers who value formal qualifications over experience. And they are far less likely to participate in training and education than younger workers. Survey after survey has shown a steady decline of learning over the life course, with a particularly steep decline in the years approaching the state pensionable age.

In too many workplaces, managers have negative views of older workers’ trainability. The CIPD report has an excellent table listing myths and realities surrounding perceptions of skills and older workers. As Stephen McNair has shown in some of his research, low participation in training is usually the result of not being offered the opportunity; hardly anyone refuses it when given the chance.

And managers who do see training as an option probably won’t want to resource it. One survey of employer behaviour in four European countries found that while the UK had the largest share of employers who saw training as a means of retaining older workers, they were also far more likely than employers in Greece, the Netherlands or Spain to see someone else – usually the government or workers – as responsible for financing the training (Van Dalen, Hankens and Schippers 2012).

As a result, older workers may have limited exposure to and knowledge of lifelong learning. Some years ago, I was involved in some research with Barbara Merrill and Jim Gallacher on adult ‘non-learners’, who often turned out to be very effective learners in an informal way, but had a perception of colleges that was years if not decades away from the reality.

There is, then, a long way to go if we are to see older workers as a positive asset who can contribute to successful organisations as we stumble from recession into recovery. The coalition government  seems largely wedded to market solutions to most major problems, and is anyway likely to see younger jobless workers as its main skills priority in the short term. Employers will need considerable persuasion if they are to develop serious mid-term strategies for skills and learning, rather than just concentrating on immediate problems.

For anyone who wants to develop the case for investing in older workers, the CIPD report is a very helpful resource. It won’t conjure up resources out of a hat, and it cannot make up for the policy vacuum that is BIS, but it provides a powerful set of arguments which trainers, providers, trade unions and the voluntary sector can use.


CIPD, Managing a healthy ageing workforce: a national business imperative,

Van Dalen, H., Henkens, K. and Schippers, J. (2012) ‘Dealing with older workers in Europe: a comparative survey of employers’ attitudes and actions’, Journal of European Social Policy, 19 (1), 47-60

Boffins, bureaucrats and blokes: senior staff in the modern university

Are our universities over-run by bureaucrats and jobsworths? Last week, Jack Grove reported on a sharp rise in the number of managers in British universities over the last few years. Writing in the Times Higher, Grove calculated that the number of managers in 2010/11 had risen by almost 40% since 2003/4, compared with a 19% rise in the number of academics. Readers were quick to weigh in, complaining of these ‘deadbeats’, ‘charlatans’, and of course ‘bureaucrats’, who are ‘irrelevant and mostly ineffective’.

I’ve worked in universities for over three decades and academic hyperbole is no stranger to me. So I thought I’d take a look the data that Grove drew on for his report, first to see what lay behind them, and second to find out how Scotland compared with the rest of the UK.

The data are easily available, and appear on the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s website. HESA reports on a whole number of different categories, including the numbers of professors in the sector; its figures for ‘managers’ cover non-academic managers only, not academic managers such as heads of department.

As it turns out, there is a story behind the figures for the professoriate. Half of this story is that the number of professors rose over the same seven year period by 34% – almost twice the rate of growth for other academics. This interesting figure is almost certainly one of the many unintended consequences of research assessment.

The other interesting story is that, despite this exponential growth in the professoriate, women still only occupy one chair out of five. Yet women account for 44% of all academic staff, so the persistence of this protected enclave for men is rather scandalous.  Interestingly, women outnumber men among the non-academic managers

Where do the Scottish universities stand? Our professoriate grew between 2003-4 and 2010-11, but by 29% as compared with 34% across the UK. Shamefully, we are as male-led as anyone, with women holding 18.3% of professorial posts, and 42% of academic jobs, though females do account for over half of non-academic managers.

And how about those managers? We like to outperform everyone in higher education, and we duly top the Four Nations bureaucracy championship. Our number of non-academic managers has risen by 62.9% – far more than the weedy English at 42% and the feeble Welsh at 31%; Northern Ireland, at a growth of 12%, wasn’t even trying.  

So something is happening to the shape of our universities. Academics have become a clear minority of staff – 57% of staff in Scotland’s universities are now non-academics – and the numbers of senior academics and non-academic managers are both on the rise. This is the product of several different trends. The first of these is a creeping seniority among academics, as more universities decide to award the title of professor to a wider range of people.

In turn, this reflects the demands of research assessment, and the competitive pressures to recruit the best, or at least the most plausible, talent. It also reflects the decision of some universities to give the title to senior academic managers, and occasionally to senior non-academic managers. As for the growth in non-academic manager numbers, this is surely partly a result of legislative requirements, as well as the wider trends towards managerialism that have infected the entire public sector.

We can anticipate that these pressures will increase rather than diminish, whatever the government of the day (or nation) may tell us. But will they be good for the sector? And more importantly, will they benefit the wider society? I think not, on both counts.

Should the Scottish Government legislate on university access?

In leap years, the last day of February has always attracted superstitions. Traditionally, in Scotland it was believed a day of bad luck. Some people in Scotland’s universities clearly felt particularly hard done by when Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, announced that his plans for post-16 reform included a stronger legislative base for promoting wider access. He also made a number of other proposals, all of them worth discussing, and some far-reaching. But the idea of legislating for wider access is a new one in these islands, and that is my focus here. 

Universities Scotland replied that it saw no ‘pressing need for new legislation on widening access’, and suggested that any new law might lead to young people entering university courses for which they were poorly prepared. The University of St Andrew’s was, predictably, more assertive, describing access as ‘not an area for legislation, but for specific projects and partnerships’, adding for good measure that ‘statutory force may lead to bad practice’. This is classic avoidance-speak, as familiar to us as the clouds in the sky, and about as fluffy. Anyone who has watched university administrators collating data to demonstrate compliance with targets will understand why any new law needs to be drafted with a beady eye on possible unintended consequences. If we want to avoid state regulation of the sector, we need to engage with Scotland’s serious problem of social inequality as it affects our institutions.

First, let’s look quickly at some of the data. We can start with the proportion of young entrants from Scotland who come from families with managerial and professional backgrounds. The figures will surprise anyone who has bought into the myths: 73% of new Scottish undergraduates came from socio-economic classes 1, 2 and 3, compared with 68% from Wales and London, 67% from Yorkshire, and 64% from Northern Ireland; the South-east of England was ahead of Scotland, at 76%. In other words, the affluent middle class account for a larger share of university entrants in Scotland than any other UK nation, making us closer to the South-east of England than to Yorkshire, the Midlands or northern England.

Next up is the proportion of young people entering undergraduate degrees who do not come from state schools or colleges. Over 12% of new entrants from Scotland are privately indicated, compared with 8% from Yorkshire, 5% from Wales and 1% from Northern Ireland. This indicator suggests that Scotland’s university entrants are more likely to be privately educated school-leavers than in the other UK nations; of the English regions, only the South-west, London (with its many minority faith schools) and the South-east come ahead of Scotland.

These data, published annually by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, are significant. Universities Scotland challenges the use of the multiple deprivation index to measure inequality, and HESA publishes data on neighbourhood disadvantage for Northern Ireland, England and Wales only. But both charts, showing university degree entrants by socio-economic classification, and by type of school, suggest a sector that might be seen by UK standards as relatively closed and elitist.

Of course, this is not the full picture. Many school-leavers in Scotland (and a fair few adults) enter full-time higher education in a college, taking one- and two-year Higher National Certificates and Diplomas. So the system as a whole is more open and inclusive than appears when looking solely at the university sector. And then there are all those adult returners and part-time students.

But here’s the rub: this is precisely what Mike Russell and the Scottish Government are trying to get at. If you take an HND, after two years of full-time study, then a lot of people – Mike Russell included – think you should be able to go on to a university and complete an undergraduate degree without having to go back to the first year. After all, every single HEI in Scotland has fully signed up to the national credit and qualifications framework. But in practice, students who ‘articulate’ from an HNC or HND into the second or third year of a degree tend to find themselves almost entirely in the so-called ‘new universities’ or ‘post-92’ institutions. In this, the university sector is at least consistent, as most students from disadvantaged backgrounds and state schools are similarly found in the post-92s.

And what about adult returners? Within the UK, Scotland’s universities are marked by their low proportion of part-time students (only Wales has a lower proportion of part-time students). Again, part-time HE students tend to gather in the colleges, as do other students from non-traditional backgrounds. The cruel fact is that under the Government’s policy of consolidation, overall funded student numbers are restricted; if a university can fill its places with full-time students, there is no incentive to take part-time ones. So although some institutions, mostly post-92, do attract part-time adult students, the university sector as a whole does not seem well-placed to support lifelong learning alongside working life.

Faced with such stark inequalities, the Government’s position looks quite cautious. The possibility of legislation was floated in the Government’s green paper on post-16 education, and the Minister’s proposals are quite modest. What he said was that the consultation seemed to show ‘clear support for legislation to support the current activity on access agreements that is being led by the Scottish funding council, and that is the route that I will pursue’. In other words, he is proposing to strengthen the current direction of travel, and give it some sort of legal basis, which is yet to be determined – after, no doubt, the usual heavy lobbying. Hardly the stuff to give even the most nervous registrar nightmares.

Instinctively, I am not an automatic supporter of state regulation of universities. But it seems to me that in many ways, our universities are slithering away from their social contract with the wider community. In Scotland, the Government has chosen to protect university budgets, at least for the time being, but other sectors have been raided in order to fund this protection; young people at risk of unemployment face uncertainty over the availability of skills training in colleges, and pre-school education has fallen well behind standards elsewhere in the UK. And there are anxieties and shortages aplenty in the schools sector.

Which brings us to the wider problem of educational inequality across Scotland’s education system. In its response to the consultation on post-16 education and training, Universities Scotland made a very good point about the roots of inequality in higher education. Put simply, universities are simply dealing with what the schools send; while over one in every two pupils from the most advantaged ten per cent of neighbourhoods in Scotland leaves with five Higher Grades or equivalent, only one in fourteen from the most deprived ten per cent crosses this hurdle. Undergraduate participation rates are higher among qualified entrants from the more deprived neighbourhoods than in more affluent areas. This is a very important finding, and Universities Scotland tactfully suggests that this should give the Minister something more pressing to worry about than the universities.

Yet even if Mike Russell dealt with inequality in schools tomorrow, the universities would still be hanging from a hook, in spite of all Universities Scotland’s wriggling. Put simply, a weak schools system requires a strong lifelong learning system, with abundant opportunities for people to return later in life, ideally without leaving their jobs. In so far as we have such a system, it is based in the college sector, and movement from college into university is highly problematic. Bluntly, it is confined to those universities that are keenest to recruit, and even there it is contingent on the number of places left over once conventionally-qualified first year entrants have been placed.

Finally, could legislation work? In fact, there is some relevant experience elsewhere, in one of the small open Nordic nations. Sweden has legislated on university access, with particular respect to mature students: all over-25s meet the eligibility requirement provided they have basic Swedish and English, plus at least four years’ work experience, and are only rejected where they do not meet the specific demands of specialist courses such as chemistry or maths. Studies by Agnieszka Bron, Martin Hällsten and the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education suggest that Swedish universities contribute significantly to lifelong learning and equity. I have yet to see convincing, or even unconvincing evidence that the quality of teaching or research has suffered as a result. So the Government does not have to look far to find signs that legislation might work; if Scotland’s universities have their wits about them, they will make sure that it is not needed.