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To tackle unemployment, we urgently need a ‘right to retrain’

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Today’s speech by the Prime Minister on education and skills contains a number of policy measures that are certainly welcome. But far more is needed to help unemployed people get the skills they need to return to work.

The fully-funded entitlement for all adults to attain a level 3 qualification is a positive step - and unions will be promoting take-up of this with the support of unionlearn and the Union Learning Fund.

However, this was a central recommendation of Philip Augar’s independent review of post-18 education and skills in May 2019.

If the government had fast-tracked this entitlement, as the TUC has been calling for, people could have been embarking on these qualifications now.

Instead it will be rolled out next April. This will be hugely frustrating for all those facing redundancy in the coming weeks and months.

Far more funding needed for adult education

Adult skills spending has fallen off a cliff during the last decade, down by around fifty per cent.

And a sharp fall in workplace training – down a cumulative 60 per cent since the late 90s - has delivered a double whammy.

The new National Skills Fund, with its promised £2.5 billion, will actually deliver funding of around £600 million per annum.

According to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this additional investment will only reverse about one fifth of the reduction in government spending on adult education and skills since 2010.

Recently, young workers and people with lower-level qualifications have seen the sharpest decline in training opportunities, the two groups at the greatest risk of unemployment.

What we urgently need is an expansive retraining programme that will support unemployed people to get the skills they need to return to employment as soon as possible.

This cannot wait until next April and it must be made available to all workers at risk of redundancy, not just those who do not already have a level 3 qualification.

This should be backed up by the development of personal lifelong learning accounts and a significant increase to the government’s adult skills budget.

And as part of this funding boost, the government should announce that it is immediately bringing forward the committed funding for the National Skills Fund into the current financial year.

Related policy reforms to support a massive adult retraining programme are also required, including a new right to paid time off for education and training for workers and access to better advice and guidance.

The government must deliver on its commitments

The government gave a commitment in the the 2019 General Election that the National Skills Fund would be “the first step towards a ‘Right to Retrain’”.

The measures announced today do not deliver on that.

There is a broad consensus among stakeholders - including the TUC, CBI, Association of Colleges and sector skills councils – that a massive retraining programme is needed now to combat rising unemployment.

The TUC and CBI have been collaborating with the government to support development of a National Retraining Scheme and this work needs to be accelerated.

More support for young people

In addition to a universal retraining offer, more support needs to be given to young people whose long-term job prospects risk being devastated by the recession.

The TUC has called on government to deliver an ‘education and training guarantee’ for all school leavers and other young people that would support access to an apprenticeship, a place at college or university, and other education and training options

The pandemic has hit apprenticeships hard with new starts down by more than 50 per cent since lockdown and increasing numbers facing redundancy.

It makes no sense for an apprentice to fail to complete their training due to redundancy and the government should give a cast-iron ‘completion guarantee’ to all apprentices who find themselves in this position.

It’s time for a social partnership approach

The impending white paper must take an approach that assimilates skills reforms into the wider economic strategy that the TUC is calling for to trigger a better recovery and build a fairer and greener Britain.

The social partnership approach that is common in many other countries allows for high level strategic planning that dovetails economic, industrial and skills policies to maximise productivity gains that are equally distributed.

A recent report by the Industrial Strategy Council concludes that “employer investment in training in the UK is low relative to many international competitors” and that a contributory factor is that there is “a greater role for employer representative and employee representative organisations (i.e. social partners) than exists in the UK.”

Getting employers and unions round the table with government to agree the policy thrust of the impending white paper would be a good starting point for instilling such an approach.

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