As we emerge from lockdown, our jobs market will not resemble the one we previously occupied. Some sectors will take time to recover; some may never fully recover at all. But others will expand or evolve over time, and many people will need to retrain.
In the medium term, replacement demand will drive new vacancies. And adults will need to adapt as we hurtle towards a tech-driven labour market: 1.5 million people are already employed in jobs that are at high risk of automation, the majority of whom are in lower-skilled positions.
A strong training offer would also drive up living standards. The labour market is unforgiving for those who arrived underqualified. Yet a third of working aged adults in England are only qualified to full level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or below, and 11.3 million adults do not have the full set of basic digital skills.
Despite the clear need for adult training – to navigate our way out of the pandemic; to profit from, rather than be supplanted by, technological change; and to raise people’s living standards – our current offer is stagnating.
The overall number of adult learners dropped from 4.4 million to 1.5 million between 2003/04 and 2017/18. Community learning fell by 23 per cent between 2011/12 and 2018/19. And adult learning at the lower end of the skills spectrum has plummeted.
But there is more still. In 2017, almost half of employers in England wanted to provide more training than they were able to offer. Employers also often struggle to find higher-level technicians. And the number of adults enrolling in part-time higher education has fallen dramatically.
While this is bad for us all, it is particularly destructive for disadvantaged adults. These individuals stand to benefit most from skills development, but are the least likely to be training.
In its manifesto, the government committed to a £3 billion National Skills Fund, and outlined below are four ways it could spend some of this fund.
First, we should introduce a tax rebate for employers who invest in low-skilled workers. We already have a similar mechanism for employers who invest in R&D, and it would be an excellent way to ensure public investment tracks apertures in the market.
Second, we should support workers who lack full level 2 and 3 qualifications to take courses that meet skills needs. The right courses boost wages, and their return on public investment is impressive.
Third, we should improve access to higher technical qualifications. Employers should play a strong role in formally recognising high-quality courses, and in designing new ones. And we should reinstate grants for disadvantaged learners who take part-time higher courses that meet our skills needs.
Fourth, we must fully realise the enormous transformative potential that exists in our apprenticeships system. And in a forthcoming CSJ report, we set out how government can build a bold apprenticeships agenda that will help boost the recovery.
It is time to reboot our adult learning offer, and to make sure it is firmly within reach of society’s most disadvantaged adults. Our recommendations would re-energise adult training at a time when disadvantaged adults need it more than ever.
Head of Education, Centre for Social Justice