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Devolve power to upskill the nation

Devolve power to upskill the nation
6 min read

Former apprentice, Shadow Minister for Local Government & Devolution Jim McMahon MP writes that devolution can help to upskill the nation and says Labour must now "help working class people get decent jobs".


‘Rise of the robots’ newspaper stories about creeping automation are a modern reminder that among the many formidable challenges which Europe faces, one is a chronic shortage of skills. Over 16 million people are unemployed across our continent as a result of structural problems that pre-date the economic crash. The European labour market has been polarised, with mid-skill jobs disappearing as high-skill and low-skill jobs take over. Many traditional jobs have been lost forever as a result of globalisation and technological advance. In England, we have our own serious and longstanding problems in the adult skills system. A large number of workers have low skills levels, yet the learners who need it most are those least likely to participate in learning. This not only holds them back in terms of both pay and progression, it also holds our economy back, contributing to low levels of productivity. Employer investment in employee training in the UK is well below the EU average and has fallen over the last decade. Since 2010, public spending on adult skills has also been cut.                          

I am the son of a truck driver who taught me the value of hard work. Dad worked long hours to provide for me, my brothers and sister. Mum taught me courage and the determination to get on. Growing up in the terraced streets of Miles Platting, I developed a strong work ethic. I left school at 16. My first job was pushing trolleys at a local cash and carry. Eventually, I secured an apprenticeship as a technician which was a big deal for me then and still is now. At that time, a young father in my early twenties, I still had to do three jobs to help my family make ends meet. I know the importance of skills and the meaning of vocation. I want other young men and women to get the same opportunities to progress in the world of work that I have had.

I do what I can to support skills development in my constituency. I was proud to open the Skills Zone workshop and learning facility run by Positive Steps, with its training suite, literacy support, metalwork and bike repair sessions, coaching and counselling. Its users range from young carers to young offenders. I also set up Oldham’s first Trades Summer School last year with a local college and schools to give young people practical, on-the-job experience of skilled trades, from mechanical and electrical engineering to joinery. Big local employers offered placements as part of the project. They feel the acute frustration of not being able to fill vacancies because those who apply for them too often lack the skills the jobs demand.

The scale of the challenge though is such that we need national governments across Europe to grasp this nettle, upping the employment rate and creating more high-productivity, well-paid jobs. The government here in the UK needs to do more to develop the skills of young people who do not go through university and more to help individuals update their skills throughout their working lives. At the same time, people need incentives to acquire new skills and employers must be encouraged to use them. If our economy is to prosper, a better skills offer is a must.

There are signs that the Conservative Party is finally waking up to some of these problems. Labour has been calling for a modern industrial strategy for many years in order to boost growth, provide more decent jobs and rebalance our economy. Whereas the last Secretary of State wouldn’t even utter the words ‘industrial strategy’, we now have a Whitehall department named after it. The Apprenticeship Levy which will take effect from April is a step in the right direction, although as things stand too few employers are aware of its imminent arrival. By the end of the year, more than 50 University Technical Colleges will also have opened: provided they are properly managed, they too point towards progress.

I am firmly of the view, however, that in skills and further education a one-size-fits-all national approach will not work. Our skills system needs to be more tailored to local needs and geared to boost local economies. A new report published today, Skills 2030, argues persuasively for a devolved approach. That devolution though must not be used as cover for cuts, and on that front this government has form. The recent Adult Education Bill, for example, offers a devolved approach but follows half a decade in which the adult skills budget has been slashed by over 40 per cent.

Devolution offers the best hope of a skills and employment offer that is tailored to the local job market and there is growing evidence that such an approach delivers results. In Oldham, the council has stepped in to fill the gap created by nationally contracted providers, supporting local people into work. Oldham Council doesn’t receive any central government funding for this but it decided it wasn’t willing to sit back while so many fell through the net. In just two years, over 3,000 people have been helped into work and a genuine partnership has been created with businesses, community organisations and public services working together. When BHS closed and the shutters came down, as Sir Philip Green sailed off into the sunset, it was thanks to this Get Oldham Working initiative that every employee who wanted a new job had one lined up. On the other side of the Pennines, in Leeds, the council is backing new proposals for a Retail and Hospitality Skills Centre for Excellence in the city. This is an agenda that local leaders will pursue energetically, but they need more central government support.

In a post-Brexit world, the UK will have to be at its most productive if it wants to compete in the global marketplace. Devolution can help upskill the nation, but politicians of all parties need to make the skills agenda a higher priority. Labour, in particular, must do what it says on the tin: help working class people get decent jobs.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton. He is the Shadow Minister for Local Government and Devolution

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