Tim Smith works at the tech startup WhiteHat, developing alternatives to university through apprenticeships. He worked as a Special Adviser from 2015 – 2019 for Theresa May in Downing Street, Patrick McLoughlin in the Transport Department, David Davis at DExEU and Jeremy Hunt in the Foreign Office.
For a Government in crisis mode, there are urgent questions and questions that can be deferred. How do we stop this virus and prevent immediate financial collapse are the pressing issues – and at present a hundred per cent of Government resource is focussed on answering them. Anything else would be an indulgence.
There are, however, some questions that can only be put off for so long, particularly given the imperative to prevent a recession becoming generation-defining depression. None are more important than the measures put in place to support workers during the time they spend redundant thanks to the shutdown.
We are almost certain to face an employment crisis on a huge scale. All the economic indicators point to a substantial recession. Nearly a million people have applied for Universal Credit the last two weeks, almost ten times the anticipated figure for normal times of 100,000. While speedy action by the Treasury will reduce the financial hardship people face, the UK labour market is heading for a chilling slowdown.
Add to this the tens of thousands of school age children who have found themselves with little to do after their exams were cancelled, and we are looking at a substantial population who will have had their lives interrupted, and with spare time to burn.
The cash support that the Treasury is providing will be essential. But just as important for their long term prosperity will be the ways we encourage these people to spend their time, and help them get their next job.
It’s a question with massive human impact. The psychological difference between swift re-entry into a new job with colleagues and a regular pay cheque versus months sat at home, with a reduced social circle, is enormous.
It is also political. For Conservatives in particular, it is essential to avoid the mistakes of the 1980s, during which victims of de-industrialisation felt a lack of interest and attention for them and their communities.
So how people spend their time really matters. While the swift action from the Treasury to secure people’s finances is welcome, in the months ahead it will not be enough to leave support at simple cash settlements. So what might some best in class schemes look like?
First, we have to support the desire of individuals to contribute to wider society in this time of need. The formal structures put in place for NHS and wider societal volunteering are a brilliant first step, and the fact that so many have volunteers is a reminder that community spirit is a powerful motivator. While winning plaudits should never be people’s primary driver for taking part, establishing a formal system of recognition will help furloughed workers who give up their time demonstrate their character and work ethic to future employers.
But the most effective long-term scheme will be a national programme of retraining. The world of work is changing rapidly, with a decisive shift towards jobs in digital, tech and services. Time spent learning transferable skills, applicable to the new reality of work, could give a generation of workers long-term resilience. All it takes is the right provision supported with the right level of funding.
We are well set up to deliver this since the cash is already available – the manifesto committed £5 billion for a National Skills Fund and this money should be unlocked, fast. For the past two years, the Government has sat on its hands when it comes to the National Retraining Scheme – Ministers now need to be empowered to start delivering it, and with furloughed workers put in the fast lane.
Much retraining can be delivered remotely without people leaving their homes. The startup I work at, WhiteHat, provides training for apprentices and we have moved all our coaching online. Mobile-optimised courses exist for those without easy access to laptops or WiFi, though more targeted support will be needed for the most digitally disadvantaged communities.
Key to success will be allowing subject areas and courses to be determined by industry demand, rather than Whitehall diktat or where capacity happens to be in the college system. This will ensure training becomes a route to a productive job. The growing industry in online courses paid for employers and the rise of apprenticeships in tech and digital show that businesses are crying out for skills, and will support workers who want to develop them.
Finally, the Government will need to fund training at a broad range of levels. This economic crisis will be broad and deep, affecting young and old, with every level of educational attainment. They will all need our support. That means support for everything from short online courses to formal apprenticeships delivered in partnership with employers.
Of course, getting measures for retraining in place are a second order question. But ensuring they have the right blend and scale is also crucial.
Three, six or nine months out of full time work does not have to mean a break on career progression. If we get it right, the time people are forced to take off can accelerate their careers in the long run and hasten our economic recovery.