Developing a skilled workforce after Brexit

I’ve been reading Sue Pember’s excellent constructive critique of the new National Retraining Scheme. The Scheme was announced in the Conservative manifesto in 2017, and further if still brief details emerged during the Chancellor’s budget speech last winter. We still don’t know how far or even whether the NTS will be integrated with the government’s national Industrial Strategy; and as Sue argues, there is still no clear decision as to whether the Scheme will be learner-led or employer-led.

For those who want to shame the Scheme, this is an opportunity to join the debate. I wanted to take a slightly different tack here, and pick out a couple of interesting and important comments in Sue’s report on the increasingly urgent question of skills supply (and utilisation\) after Brexit.

First is the need for a step change in skills development strategy in a county which will not be able to rely on others to train its skilled workers. I agree with this, subject to the proviso that it also requires an Industrial Strategy focused on raising the demand for higher skills:

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The second – which I strongly endorse – is the now urgent need for clarity about the future of regional funding when we leave the European Social Fund – another topic trailed in the Conservative manifest, but yet to be taken forward:

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A new focus on adult skills in Germany?

Inside Germany, news of the coalition agreement was met more with grudging relief than enthusiasm. It followed an election in which both main parties haemorrhaged support; for the Christian Democrats, the outcome probably spells the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel’s long period of political dominance, while the Social Democrats’ loss of support is starting to look existential.

So the new coalition is a partnership of two weakened, and possible vulnerable, political giants. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats will jointly be ruling Europe’s largest economy, which is also by far the EU’s most influential member. So regarless of any internal weakness, it is well worth looking at the text of the coalition agreement – and, given my interests, you won’t be surprised that I’ve been keen to see whether it mentions the broad area of lifelong learning.

In fact, the agreement pays a remarkable amount of attention to adult and/or continuing education:

  • Chapter Four – which is devoted to an ‘Offensive for Education, Research and Digitisation’ places a strong emphasis on the role of public policy in securing adult skills. It promises a national strategy for continuing education, focusing mainly but not exclusively on its role in securing digital skills.
  • Chapter Five, on ‘Securing Good Work, Wide Security, and Social Participation’, speaks about a strong, broad alliance for lifelong learning in digital skills.

It should be clear that the priority here is workforce skills, and above all digital skills. In this the new strategy will be building on the existing initiative ‘Berufsbildung 4.0‘ (vocational education for the fourth industrial revolution), as well as continuing earlier atttempts to improve possibilities for mobility between roles.

However, the agreement also stresses that opportunities for digital updating should be available to people ‘at any age and in any life situation’, and looks to the public Volkshochschulen to play a central role in delivering the new digital skills. It also promises to develop basic workplace and family skills provision as part of Germany’s national decade for literacy (2016-2026).

This aspect of the coalition agreement almost certainly reflects the hopes and priorities of the Social Democrats. While it will have to be implemented by Anja Karliczek, the minister for education and science, who is a Christian Democrat, the finance minister is a Social Democrat.

This matters, because financial means will not be easy to come by. The adult education section of the German teachers’ union has broadly welcomed the agreement’s potential for developing workorce continuing education, but pointed out reasonably enough that it says next to nothing about funding. That is a task for the new minister and the new Parliament, and it is here that the weakened standing of both partners may come into play.

Funding adult skills in France: here comes the ‘big bang’

Considerable controversy has surrounded President Macron’s plans for labour reform in France, especially measures designed to promote labour flexibility and limit trade union powers. Less widely reported are parallel interventions to promote skills and learning, but this is where the focus is now moving.

The politician responsible for the labour reforms is Muriel Pénicaud, an experienced human resources manager who became Minister of Labour in May 2017. After completing her first set of labour reforms last year, Pénicaud has turned her attention to training and skills, an area where she (and Macron) believe existing French policies to be antiquated and inefficient.

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“The training system is neither fair nor equitable”: unequal participation

On 5 March, the Minister announced the long-awaited content of her reforms, claiming that they had been ‘largely’ agreed with employers and unions. Above all, there are new arrangements for personal training accounts, or compte personnel de formation: whereas the old system was counted in time, the new entitlement will be calculated in cash, with the funds being collected through the social insurance system. Each individual employee’s account will be credited with €500 a year, capped at a total of €5,000; those with low skills will have a higher sum of €800 a year, capped at €8,000.

Further changes will bring part-time workers into the system, as well as absorbing the congé individuel de formation (CIF) into the CFP. A new tripartite agency, France compétences, will regulate the training costs and scrutinise quality, to avoid the kind of malpractice that dogged the initial foray into learning accounts in England and that has marred the CPF to date.

How much of this will happen is another matter. France’s unions and employers’ associations responded with their own counter-proposals. Pénicaud has initially dismissed these as too modest and conservative, arguing that what was needed was les incremental change than a ‘big bang’ (the French for which turns out to be – yes, big bang) which combined radical reform with a simplification of a complex and inefficient status quo.

Pénicaud’s ‘big bang’ also extends to other areas of skills pilicy. She is in discussion with social partners over how to improve skills levels among the unemployed, and has initiated discussions on an overhaul and expansion of the apprenticeship system. Taken together, these reforms will unsettle relationships not only with the unions buts also with employers’ organisations and France’s powerful regional governments. The outcome is still uncertain, but I’m backing Pénicaud to win.