Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield.
Coronavirus will inevitably continue to present a huge challenge to our economy even when we begin to get Britain moving again. It will be a slow process, with a steady lifting of restrictions over a long period and social distancing staying with us for some time to come. But as we look at how to rebuild and get back to sustainable growth, and an economy that’s strong enough to support the public services we need, we need to take some transformational steps on skills, adult learning, and retraining.
Nobody doubts that our jobs market is going to look quite different when this is over. Huge numbers of people are likely to be left without employment with some sectors struggling whilst others boom. Getting people back to work will, of course, be helped by businesses reopening, but many will be picking up the pieces and not able to employ as many people as before. Tens of thousands will need to look at new roles and careers and each of them will need support through retraining and adult learning, which the government should direct at the sectors most in need.
Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has quite rightly put Further Education (FE) and skills high on his agenda for the future, and the government has always prioritised adult learning, but the National Retraining Scheme must now become relentlessly focused on outcomes. The Government must involve training providers directly, including our colleges, ensure the creation of new courses in those businesses sectors that are booming or likely to grow quickest in the aftermath, and ensure that these courses are free of charge to anyone who lost their job. We can take the new online Skills Platform launched this week and deliver courses face to face too, and we could expand that further still.
As recommended in the Augar Review, every adult should be given the entitlement to a level three qualification – an A-Level equivalent. Not all of these are academic; there are a range of technical and vocational courses too, but enabling our workforce to become more qualified and flexible and giving many adults the opportunity of learning or training to a higher level and possibly in new areas will be of huge benefit to them, the economy and wider society.
If in three to six months’ time we’re finding that many of those made redundant during March and April aren’t getting back into work, we could even think about supporting the wages of those whose employers are willing to offer opportunities to train and upskill on the job.
For the generation leaving school this year, it’s not exactly a great time to be fresh out of education and looking for work, so we must also boost the support available there too, otherwise we will have thousands of young people becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training).
Almost every sector I’ve spoken to about the Apprenticeship Levy emphasises the need for more flexibility and freedom to be able to make use of the funds. There is currently a restriction on the number of apprentices small and medium-sized businesses can take on. This should be removed and we should expand and enhance the further education offer through the scheme.
Not only will that help to offer more opportunities for young people to secure work, it will also help create more jobs if businesses are able to employ more apprentices to help grow their firm faster. Taking on an apprentice is cheaper for the employer and it will allow them to offer training and paid work to those leaving education at this difficult time.
We could even pay for the training element from government, further reducing the cost to business, with employers only needing to cover wages, allowing them to take on more people or invest elsewhere in their businesses. There has never been a more pressing and urgent need to get the numbers of apprentices back up to record levels.
If we harness the post-COVID world in the right way, it could also be a new beginning for British entrepreneurship. By encouraging our network of great FE colleges to offer premises and staff time and expertise to support budding entrepreneurs, we could help fledgeling start-ups to get moving and support the next generation of business leaders.
In April we wiped out, at the stroke of a pen, £13.4 billion of NHS debt as a thank you for everything they are continuing to do for us in this crisis, allowing NHS hospitals to plan for the future and to invest in the vital services we all need. There will soon come a time where we need to do the same for our FE colleges’ £1.25 billion debt in return for their help. It will be their moment to step up to the plate. I know my local college in Mansfield would snap your hand off for a chance to turn old government loans into grants to get on a better financial footing. We could make that happen if colleges can offer this support to new businesses.
The NHS has done a fantastic job in looking after us, the government’s economic support measures have provided reassurance to so many and everyone has brilliantly stayed at home, saving lives, protecting the NHS and looking after each other. But if we are to sustain this recovery we must invest in skills and training for anyone who needs it to get back into work, rather than simply spending that same money on unemployment benefit.
With a focused retraining programme for adults and an emphasis on further education and apprenticeships, we will boost people’s life chances, invest in people’s futures and ensure the British economy comes bouncing back faster than ever.