I recently spoke to a journalist at a national newspaper who told me that ‘skills were suddenly sexy’. Of course, I put him right and told him that they had always been sexy! But I knew what he meant. All of a sudden those of us working in the skills based education sector have seen it thrust into the spotlight, after decades of being the ‘Cinderella sector’ of education – forgotten and underfunded.
In the region of four million Britons are expected to be unemployed when the furlough ends (an increase of 260% from pre-pandemic figures) with many likely to need to retrain for a new career. Given this, you can see why adult education has suddenly shot up the agenda in Government.
There is no doubt that there is a huge challenge ahead of us to address the unemployment crisis this country is facing. If we don’t we risk ending up with millions of people whose futures are blighted and towns and cities that are scared for a generation by poverty and the impact of squandered life chances.
So what do we need to do now to ensure that the millions of people expected to join the unemployment lines by the end of this year are quickly redirected back into meaningful work?
Government have already put a number of measures in place to support the one million young people (under the age of 24) who are expected to be unemployed. However, 2.5 million of those expected to be unemployed by early 2021 are expected to over the age of 25 and once furlough ends there will be very little safety net available to them. People aged 25 and over tend to have more responsibilities; children or older parents to support and mortgages or rent to pay. Meaning that paying thousands to retrain can be prohibitively expensive for many. Particularly if they have just been made unemployed.
Now is not the time to rely on old fashioned and outdated models of addressing reskilling and unemployment. We need to think outside of the box to scoop up some of those highly talented unemployed people with great transferable skills and redirect them back into great careers.
At City & Guilds we recently submitted a response to the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in which we proposed a radical yet eminently practical new idea. We asked for the establishment of a national network of Employment and Training Hubs, which would provide a ‘shop window for skills’, make employment and re-employment pathways more visible and accessible and help to match up local jobseekers with local employers. These could help to redirect some of the millions adults I mentioned to transition into new and fulfilling careers rather than risk ending up on the scrapheap.
At City & Guilds we think that the pandemic actually presents an opportunity to look at a broken adult education system and take steps to build an adult lifelong learning system which helps the Covid-19 recovery, but is also robust enough to deal with future challenges such as AI and automation.
This really is our Act Now moment. I hope that the current situation is the catalyst for some much-needed change.
Our skills system might be broken but now we are presented with a golden opportunity to reimagine it.
Kirstie Donnelly MBE is Chief Executive of City and Guilds and was a member of the Lifelong Learning Commission