The passage of new legislation through Parliament often leads to lively policy debate both among Parliamentarians and stakeholders outside Westminster.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, whose Commons amendments are currently being considered in the House of Lords – is no different.
One particular amendment – which was rejected – New clause 6 — Skills levels in England and Wales: review would have required the Secretary of State for Education to compile a report on the overall skills of England and Wales, including a regional breakdown. There is a clear focus on ‘hard’ skills, those specific to a particular job or trade, rather than on transferable, ‘soft’ skills.
The proposal sought to tackle the longstanding issue of how best to track and publicise skills gaps in national, regional and local labour markets. This is a vitally important task for the education system as it seeks to ensure that young people study for qualifications that are in demand in the labour market.
The Department for Education has previously published the Employer Skills Survey. It was last published in 2019, the fifth since 2011, to cover England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and asked questions about:
- recruitment difficulties and skills lacking from applicants;
- skills lacking from existing employees;
- underutilisation of employees’ skills;
- anticipated needs for skill development in the next 12 months;
- the nature and scale of training, including employers’ monetary investment;
- the relationship between working practices, business strategy, skill development and skill demand.
The Employer Skill Survey faces the same challenge as any survey: the time lag between data collection and insights; the fact data becomes out of date as soon as it is collected; and the level of detail in the survey.
This is why in debate on hard skills policy, some stakeholders have repeatedly put the emphasis on using analysis and insight to look ahead, rather than just snapshots of the recent present.
For example, in response to the Skills Bill, the Institute of Directors has recently proposed that a Future Skills Unit (FSU) is established as a separate agency with a single remit – to advise on the future national shortage skills areas, underpinning the government’s lifelong learning free training offer and new workplace training incentive schemes.
The suggestion of the FSU as a separate agency is particularly interesting. This would make the FSU similar to the work of the now-closed UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), which ran from 2008 to 2017. Recommended by the Leitch Review of Skills, perhaps its most lasting contribution was running and iteratively improving the Employer Skill Survey.
The UK policy for skills planning has been based on a market-like system for skill and training, where employers and individuals make decisions regarding the skills they want to develop and invest in.
However, these debates around the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill could signal an appetite for more government involvement in skills planning, as the government seeks to ensure that the skills young people study and gain qualifications in are the ones that are needed.