Williamson’s White Paper: ‘Skills Without Jobs’?

The much-awaited White Paper

has been published this week. It’s a long and tedious read, but here’s an initial response. Rather than just summarising the contents, it seeks to provide some context.

Almost every serious analysis of changes in the occupational structure at the start of the 21st century recognises an increased polarisation of work. Professional and managerial jobs are growing, although not at the rate that some people expected and there aren’t enough for those qualified to do them.  Traditional ‘elementary work’ has remained a key source of employment but has been supplemented by large increases in low-paid work in the retail, leisure, and hospitality sectors — and particularly social care. Much of this is also ‘precarious’ –part time, insecure or temporary, highly labour intensive with low rates of productivity.

Skills without jobs?

Occupational data, including the government’s own, also shows a collapse of ‘middle -work’ — declines in basic clerical and administrative employment – as a consequence of the digitalisation of office skills, but also of the numbers working in traditional skilled manual trades, a result of automated production lines and a general slowdown and over capacity in manufacturing, as consumer trends change and production moves to lower-wage economies. According to the OECD’s Employment Outlook for 2020, in the United Kingdom, new job postings for middle-skill occupations contracted twice as much between February and April 2020 as for low-skill occupations, and 40% more than for high-skill occupations.

So, rather than the post-war jobs pyramid being replaced by a ‘knowledge society’ offering opportunities for social mobility – and reflecting the ‘education. education, education’ agenda of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the occupational structure is increasingly ‘hour-glassed’ (though, if levels of income, rather than occupational titles are considered, it’s more like a pear!). This is the real reason why young people (at least those that can) who have a far greater understanding of how the labour market really works – and what types of educational qualifications get you further up the job queue, continue to sign up for academic A-levels and flock to university in increasing numbers, despite the fees.  

With social mobility now just as likely to be ‘downwards’, a degree is becoming a necessity for more and more jobs (even if it’s not necessary to perform them!). The consequences are that as these jobs become ‘graduatised’, those less well qualified are bumped down the labour queue further. It shouldn’t be denied that there may be ‘skills-gaps’ in particular areas, but surveys show that employers are just as likely to report their workforces as ‘over skilled’– with employee surveys reporting many of their jobs not needing more than basic levels of literacy, numeracy, and ICT ability, or only requiring a primary education.

Despite all this, for the last decade Tory politicians and their policy wonks have continued to insist there are not enough people with ‘intermediate’ qualifications and to call for better technical and vocational education. There has been Lord (Kenneth) Baker’s crusade to promote the disastrous University Technical Colleges (UTCs), the Sainsbury Review of post-16 qualifications which led to an earlier White Paper – and more recently still, the Augar Report on post-18 provision.   And so it is with Skills and Jobs.

Like these earlier initiatives, the White Paper  sees closer employer involvement in course content (putting them ‘in the driving seat’) as a way of increasing skill levels and thus economic performance;   yet employer representatives have regularly sat on committees overseeing  vocational qualifications, just as they have for new apprenticeship standards  — but it  remains the case that individual employers still look to recruit people with high status academic qualifications, particularly from high status institutions. The changes in the occupational structure and the inequalities that have resulted, will only be reversed by an alternative economic and job creation programme initiated by government.  Changes to education and ‘skill creation’ can only contribute to this.  But they can also also be used as cover for the absence of real policies and then teachers and lecturers are able to be blamed for these wider failures. In other countries like Germany (cited in the White Paper), vocational and technical education has been part of a wider economic plan or ‘social partnership’. The UK’s free market approach to qualifications and labour market entry, is a million miles from these wider failures.

That the White Paper has little or no analysis of occupational changes, apart from some contradictory footnotes, might appear rather strange. It isn’t, if you accept that its real aim is a political one — to reduce the numbers going to university through promoting ‘alternatives’–but many of which young people have already shunned. The White Paper ignores the fact that until recently, the majority of apprenticeships have been lower level and often for existing employees, only focussing on ‘Highers’. These represent just over one in ten of all apprenticeship starts and are almost non existent for school or college leavers.

If apprenticeships really had been ‘extremely successful’ (WP p14) then why would government be creating the new T-( technical) levels, currently being rolled out –albeit online, in a few further education colleges?  Even many educationalists who continue to support the continuation of ‘vocational alternatives’ doubt whether these are a sensible creation or can ever be successful.  They point to the existence of tried and tested certificates like the BTECs, that can be delivered in school sixth forms, which many 16-18 olds continue to attend, are popular with teachers and (especially if combined with academic qualifications) serve as routes to university as much as the workplace. The same can be said about the White Paper’s Higher Level Technical qualifications – it isn’t clear whether these will be an extension of T-levels, who will award them, or how they’ll differ from what’s already on offer in HE.

The Tories want to return universities to ‘what they used to be’ – essentially elitist institutions with an emphasis on high status, powerful knowledge for the few. Thus, ‘new’ universities further down the pecking order are told that financial support to help them recover from the covid crisis will only be available if their courses provide ‘value for money’ and (like the ‘old’ polytechnics) are linked to specific types of employment – many of them already are!  But there’s also another reason. With some estimates calculating that up to half of student loans are not going to be repaid, there are huge implications for ‘public debt’, as neo-liberal governments grapple with the implications of post-covid economics.

Further Education college managers have given a cautious welcome. If anybody is going to benefit from the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund it will be cash strapped FE –- though new accountability requirements will be set out through local Skills and Productivity Boards. But it also needs to be remembered that private providers continue to play as larger role as FE in delivering apprenticeships and it’s also the case that if the new higher level technical qualifications ever materialise these are as likely to be scooped up by the HE institutions described above.  In line with the White Paper, some colleges might become Centres for Business Development or Institutes of Technology — but some might not, intensifying further divisions between them.

The White Paper was, it would seem, drafted before the real effects of the pandemic were evident. With the economy experiencing a huge downturn, attention must now focus on likely loss of jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors, many of which as well as being low-paid and low-skilled are disproportionately performed by young people. Apart from the (limited) Kick Start programme for young people already suffering long term unemployment, there has been no real consideration of the implications of this.


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