Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and a former personal finance and consumer affairs reporter.
Now that the Prime Minister has triggered Article 50 and we have begun our journey out of the European Union, it is more important than ever that we address Britain’s skills crisis. If we are to make a reality of Global Britain, and seize the opportunities that lie beyond the EU, British workers must be equipped for the task – especially since voters have sent a clear message about wanting stricter controls on immigration.
My colleagues and I on the Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee have been taking evidence on the impact of Brexit on important industries like tourism, and it’s clear that businesses and our public services have benefited from easy access to a huge pool of skilled workers on the continent. Whilst nobody in Government is suggesting we pull up the drawbridge, it’s clear that employers must be more prepared in future to stand on their own two feet and make better use of home-grown talent.
This will be a challenge, but I believe that it will force us to confront deep-seated, structural flaws in our economy and could, if done properly, lead to not only a stronger economy but a more socially just one too. The principal problem is our low productivity: according to the Financial Times it remains “far below” its pre-crisis level of a decade ago. Our recovery has been based around what the Spectator dubs the “jobs miracle”, with a very high proportion of people in work (especially compared to the continent).
But productivity has been “the missing part of the recovery” and, with relatively little unemployment remaining, that places a ceiling on how far we can continue to grow the economy. If we want to unlock further growth, we need to get more out of people in work, not just get more people into work. That requires proper investment in skills and training.
In the fast-evolving economy of the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer workers will be able to rely on unchanging skill sets. Instead, they’ll need to constantly stay on top of new technology and techniques, equipping themselves to cope with rapid changes to their industry or trade – and employers will have to play their part, rather than simply importing the skills they need.
Done right, this has the potential to help address some of the serious inequalities currently undermining the British economy, not least its treatment of older people. At present, a combination of ageism in the workplace and unrealistic retirement expectations mean that people are still looking to retire from the workforce at 62 – that’s a full three-years before the state pension age.
Forget the rhetoric about “creating space for young people”, which just perpetuates false stereotypes about older workers – forcing people out of the workforce is sowing the seeds of a genuine public service crisis. Health outcomes have advanced a long way since the retirement age was set; but instead of lengthening our productive lives, too often out-dated attitudes towards older people and inflexible retirement rules condemn many to lonely and expensive retirements.
Not only is this unfair to them, but it risks putting a huge burden on the next generation of workers. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) almost a quarter of the population will be aged over 65 by the mid-2030s. We literally cannot afford for those people to join the ranks of the “Economically Inactive” – of which there are already almost nine million – as it would place an unsustainable strain on our public services and those working to pay for them. If we’re not to import young people to make up the shortfall then we must do all we can to keep our so-called dependency ratio within workable limits.
A culture of life-long upskilling is vital to keep older people in the workforce. It would also create new pathways to employment for people who have felt locked out of the economy for generations. The Leave vote revealed how cut off many voters feel from Britain’s economic successes. Dire warnings from the Remain campaign about the potential impact of Brexit cut no ice with people who couldn’t see any connection between impressive overall statistics and their own lived experiences.
We have made some progress on addressing chronic worklessness – according to the ONS, only 11 per cent of children are now growing up in households with nobody working. But too many people still don’t feel a part of British economic success. In some places, such as sink estates or areas that were built around heavy industry, this sense of alienation extends to entire communities.
Reform to training and technical education offers us a way to rebuild the ladders to employment that were kicked away by the decline of traditional industrial jobs and the drive towards a comprehensive education system, which built around a postcode lottery that favours the wealthy. For example, the Government’s new T-Level will trim the bewildering 13,000 different vocational courses down to just 15, each with a clear pathway to industry, whilst our more flexible education system gives parents and providers the freedom to innovate with new types of school that better equip children for working life.
And although there will certainly be a short-term cost to business if they’re less able to simply recruit talent from overseas, we should not underestimate the long-term social and economic benefits that will arise from investing properly in training and recruiting British workers. Furthermore, ending the long-standing perception of technical education as somehow ‘second class’, and working with groups like the Royal Academy of Engineering to improve uptake of STEM subjects with clear employment prospects, will help keep the UK at the forefront both of technological innovation and of important global battles against famine, disease, and climate change.