One month doesn’t make a spring but yesterday’s unemployment figures showed a slight dip in St Albans – both the total number out of work and also in the 16-24 and 50+ age groups. That is welcome, but it’s not yet a job rich world.
As it happens I spent the first half of yesterday hearing about ways we might create a “job rich future” at a Policy Exchange conference in London. I missed Chris Grayling’s widely reported ministerial exhortation to “hire a hoody”, but the sessions I was able to attend were deeply fascinating.
There was another Conservative minister (John Hayes) enthusistically citing William Morris and Hegel as though he had read them himself – and I am certain he had. I learned the amazing and thought-provoking statistic that the lowest paid 40 percent of the NHS workforce deliver 80 percent of the patient contact yet benefit from only 4 percent of the annual NHS training budget. And that 40,000 people leave UK schools each year functionally illiterate and/or innumerate.
All the speakers agreed that it is macro-economic policy and economic growth which is going to deliver jobs – but the micro-economic challenge is to create a workforce with the right skills. It’s about competitiveness in a tougher global economy, it’s about individual self-esteem and satisfaction too.
One of the slow-burn things the government has done is hugely increase apprenticeships – not just in overall numbers but also in quality, with a new emphasis on those crucial literacy and numeracy factors.
There was discussion about the rather arbitrary 50% in higher education target. Should it be adjusted to take into account all post-16 skills, vocational as well as academic? How do we cater for lifelong learning with an ageing population and workforce.?
Another thought-provoking statistic: only two percent of the entire national skills budget is spent on over 50s.
The symmetrical discrimination against young and old was wryly noted – too little or no experience damns the first, being “over-qualified” damns the second. Under-participation by over 50’s is often too low a priority because people who become self-employed “consultants” often don’t become a burden on the taxpayer if they can draw a pension – but the nation is poorer if they are economically inactive through frustration rather than choice.
There are huge structural issues both specific to Britain and across the capitalist model, we pull levers, some simply aren’t connected, others don’t produce the expected results. There are no easy answers to unemployment, it’s going to be a long slog.
PS The growth of think tanks is one of the phenomena of the last thirty years. Policy Exchange is now the biggest think tank in Britain. It is to the the Conservative Party what the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has been to Labour. I have to admit being Policy Exchange’s first corporate sponsor, when I worked at BT and Policy Exchange was a tiny fledgling under the leadership of Nick Boles. We were desperate to find a Conservative-leaning think tank which was not barking mad, something to complement IPPR and the Liberal-leaning Centre Forum. It has certainly fulfilled that promise.