Further education allows people to get that extra foot on the ladder of opportunity, as they seek further knowledge and qualifications that will help them in the employment market. For some the joy of learning is their primary motivation but for society the main purpose is the development of a new generation of employees and the drive for economic growth.
Business leaders, in my Great Yarmouth constituency, bemoan the skills shortage that will hamper our opportunities to benefit from the rapidly expanding energy sector. It’s not just specialist sectors that are suffering; there is a massive skills shortage in areas like electrical engineering. The great pool of talented, technically skilled workers that this this country used to have has withered away as the drive for ever more degree places took precedence. Most youngsters these days feel a draw, or a parental expectation, towards a degree course, never considering the opportunities available when entering a skilled trade.
More must be done to encourage young people in to these fields. Companies should play a role in our schools, promoting the opportunities to pupils’ pre-GCSE level so that they are aware of all the options and are guided when making future career route choices. This does happen to a limited extent; it is undertaken by forward thinking companies sending staff in to schools to invest in future employees now. Over the last decade companies have plugged the skills gap with immigrant workers, with tighter immigration controls this will no longer be an option. Hence the sudden interest in finding new recruits closer to home.
I have heard arguments for providing tax allowances for companies who engage with education in this way. However, any such scheme would be complex and difficult to assess in the long term. There is a simpler incentive we can provide to business.
Too often colleges concentrate on providing courses that will prove popular with students. This led to one business leader to observe that we need fewer hairdressing courses and more that are focused on the needs of business. The answer is not central government interference, dictating what courses should be offered and the setting of artificial targets. We can change the structure of college boards, with a percentage allocation of places given to local business, with a focus on industry sectors within that region.
They would provide a direct insight in to local training needs, giving colleges a greater focus on the need of the local jobs market and economy. Such a move does require high level backing from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, so that colleges don’t pay lip service and continue on regardless. Business doesn’t always get it right, but their direct involvement would encourage an enormous shift towards providing young people with the skills for the future our country currently lacks.