Labour must set out a vision for a wholesale revolution of adult education

We face a huge skills challenge in the UK. The skills demanded by employers are constantly evolving as new jobs made up of new tasks are created. This is nothing new. Politicians have grappled with such challenges for many years. But over the last decade, Conservative-led governments have responded inadequately to the seismic shifts taking place, and policy is failing to meet the needs of our current and future workforce. Spending on adult skills has been cut dramatically over the last decade and participation has fallen too. Equipped for the Future, a new collection of essays on the skills challenge published jointly by the Fabian Society and Community, sets out how policy can take on the task.

Employers were already facing the prospect of skills shortages before the pandemic. In 2019, the Industrial Strategy Council (ISC) estimated that seven million extra workers would have insufficient skills for their jobs by 2030. ISC modelling suggested that the single largest problem would be a lack of basic digital skills, followed by shortages in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics knowhow and teaching and management skills. Its analysis showed that existing policies will not address the problem. We will need to increase formal learning outside the workplace, and we will need a huge increase in employment-based lifelong learning too.

The recent ‘levelling up’ white paper acknowledged the role of skills and education in reducing inequalities across the UK, but it failed to commit any new funding to underpin its targets on skills. The Learning and Work Institute suggested that, under the government’s adult skills plans, investment in skills will still be £750m lower in 2025 than it was in 2010. Similarly, the skills and post-16 education bill only seeks to tinker around the edges, rather than delivering the transformation that is needed from any government truly committed to lifelong learning.

Between now and the next general election, Labour must grasp every opportunity to hold the government to account on its inadequate skills funding and unambitious targets and set out a vision for a wholesale revolution of adult education in the UK.

In Equipped for the Future, shadow education minister Mike Watson outlines the shape of the next Labour government’s alternative approach. This vision must enable workers to move seamlessly in and out of training as structural changes transform our economy. New technologies will continue to change the nature of jobs, meaning that people will need support to adapt and reskill throughout their careers. And the decarbonisation required for the UK to meet its net-zero targets will disrupt the labour market too. A Labour government must work with key sectors such as manufacturing to ensure that a green transition is a just transition.

In bringing together business leaders, policy experts, politicians, trade unionists and practitioners to set out ideas to develop adult skills policy ahead of the next general election, the Fabians and Community have demonstrated both the scale of the skills crisis and the urgent action required. The authors provide insightful and practical policy solutions – including the TUC’s Paul Nowak on why we need to introduce a ‘right to retrain’, Elena Magrini’s proposals for a lifelong learning national campaign and voucher credits for training and David Hughes’ recommendation of a statutory right to lifelong learning.

We know that meeting the UK’s skills challenge is not just a task for government. Employers have a responsibility to support workers, as well as an economic incentive to invest in the skills that they will require in order for their businesses to thrive. Unions will be crucial in working with individuals, government and employers to deliver training and upskilling to ensure workers are equipped and resilient.

Meeting the demand for new skills will be critical if we are to drive forward our economy post-Covid in a meaningful way. Continuous investment in skills and technology must be at the forefront of Labour’s long-term vision for the labour market, and diverse and engaged workforces must at the heart of shaping that vision.

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