Trump’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board could be a model – except that it is advising Trump

Trump’s creation of American Workforce Policy Advisory Board is being presented as a response to the competitive threat posed by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid adoption of digital technologies is now being followed by AI and robotics, and like governments across the old industrial nations, the Trump administration has noticed that the workforce has different skills from those demanded in the new economy.

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The challenge is, as ever, figuring out how to develop the skills that seem to be needed. I say “seem to be” deliberately, as it isn’t at all clear what those skills might be. But again, that is precisely what the new Board is being asked to do: its remit is to propose “ways to encourage the private sector and educational institutions to combat the skills crisis by investing in and increasing demand-driven education, training, and retraining, including training through apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities”.

The Board will report directly to the White House, through the President’s National Council for the American Worker. Its membership is impressive: as well as co-chairs Ivanka Trump, who is formally described as an adviser to the President, and Wilbur Ross, the US’ Secretary of Commerce, it includes a number of CEOs , a senior trade unionist, representatives of the community colleges and universities, and the director of the Milken Institute, an influential economic think tank.

Ivanka Trump of course represents a second, and possibly more sure, door to the Oval Office. Her public statement on the Board’s launch was revealing, emphasising as she did the goal of “inclusive growth” in which “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy”.

So in some ways, the Board is well-placed to deliver. Its focus is on the supply of skills rather than raising demand, which might require intervention in the running of those corporations that are so well represented among its members. Instead it is likely that the business-dominated Board will concentrate on changes to provision (including, interestingly, apprenticeships).

A supply side focus is of course hardly unique – it is difficult to think of a single government that makes demand-side inteeventions the core of its skills policy. But the US government appears to assume that increasing levels of employment are themselves a signal that it is the remaining jobless and new young workers who need to be fixed, and not the shape of the economy.

Further, most of the key levers of change – whether in provision or demand – do not lie with the federal government. The states are the key public actors, and many have already shown that they are happy to ignore this federal administration.

The bigger problem, though, is of course the nature of that administration. On past experience, both the Advisory Board and the National Council will witness a slew of resignations once they have started reporting, with neither the reports nor resignations having any visible effect on policy. Notoriously, this President’s attention shifts elsewhere. Investing in infrastructure and rejuvenating the old industrial regions formed an under-reported (on this side of the Atlantic at least) part of Trump’s campaign promise. I’d like to think that he might see the Advisory Board’s work as a way of delivering higher skills across the workforce, but I’m not betting on it.

 

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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Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

As a citizen and ratepaper I have just responded to my local council’s consultation for its draft corporate plan. Called Towards 2030, the plan is intended to provide the overarching framework for the wide range of activities that Scarborough Borough Council undertakes on behalf of its population of just over 100,000 people.

At the moment, the Council is interested in our response to the four broad, high-level aims that it proposes to pursue. A cynic would say these are ‘apple pie’ statements, which focus on people, place, prosperity and the Council itself – all four lined up under the ambitious vision of ‘a prosperous Borough, with a high quality of life for all’.

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I had plenty to say about all this, but what struck me was how far the section on prosperity focused on education and skills.This includes turning the Borough into ‘the most highly skilled coastal community by 2030’, a target that I would bet my coffin will never be met (and will probably be quietly forgotten by 2020).

Coastal communities across Britain are generally characterised by low skills levels, and their economies are often characterised by a heavy reliance on low wage and precarious forms of employment. As a result, government has announced a series of initiatives to help regenerate coastal areas, with a major focus on training places and apprenticeships.

All this is of course fine. The problem, though, is that improving the skills and aspirations of young people (and adult workers) may well be highly desirable, but it will not create a highly skilled population. Far more probably, well-educated and highly-motivated workers will immediately move elsewhere to realise their ambitions and use their skills – as indeed they already do from coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey.

Scarborough Borough Council is hardly alone in focussing on skills supply as the panacea for all ills. I can see why local government might look at local labour markets and decide that the solution to low skills is to train and educate the young. And the Council has done well in some respects, for example in securing the provision of a higher education campus in the Borough, with Coventry University offering a broad range of degrees.

The problem is that to retain skilled and motivated workers means raising the demand for skills, by promoting types of employment that will use and reward those skills. And in turn that means interventions of some sort to help reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain. These interventions, whether government-led or business-led, will inevitably be of a kind that so far local and devolved governments in the UK have been most reluctant to pursue.