While announcing a ‘shakeup’ of funding for post-18 education recently, Boris Johnson spoke of the “nonsensical” gulf between university and vocational training.
The gap between academic and vocational qualifications has closed to an extent in recent years. Apprenticeships, for example, have become far more prominent – partly thanks to the focus on them from David Cameron’s government and the launch of ‘degree apprenticeships’.
But in general, there is still a massive imbalance in both perception and availability of opportunity between those with a university education and vocational training. As a direct result, there are skills gaps in key sectors like tech, engineering and construction, where on-the-job training is often better than a degree.
The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimates that the UK needs to find roughly 150,000 new skilled construction workers by the end of 2023. Working in housing, I know how important it is that more people choose to learn a trade. Yet the vocational pathways needed to embark on it, mean that it is a constant struggle to attract the builders of the future.
What’s needed is a mindset change. Government funding, like that announced by Mr. Johnson earlier this month, is positive, but it won’t make a meaningful difference unless businesses communicate more effectively that vocational skills are sought after.
Arguably, the pandemic has created the right conditions for vocational training to come into its own especially with universities going through such a difficult period reputationally due to the limitations Covid-19 has placed on student life.
Meanwhile, unemployment in the UK is set to skyrocket – the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that we could see it peak at 13% in the next few years. With the furlough scheme coming to an end, initiatives announced by the prime minister, such as the lifetime skills guarantee, are an acknowledgement that large numbers of people will imminently need to retrain.
This is no doubt an incredibly challenging and frightening time for those who have been thrown off their chosen career path by Covid-19. But it should also be a catalyst for businesses to refresh their attitude to training and recruitment. Industries like construction are in dire need of reinforcements and the coronavirus has meant that people are looking for new opportunities.
Now is the time for firms to champion vocational training and support the next generation of plumbers, electricians, roofers and plasterers.
For me, there is no reality where the education system alone will turn out enough ready-to-go workers for industries like construction and engineering. Companies in these sectors must be willing to take on ambitious young workers or retrain people who’ve lost jobs because of the pandemic.
At Aster, we recognised there was a need to cast the net much wider, even before Covid-19. We recruit people from different backgrounds and across a broad range of sectors outside of our own.
We continue to focus on our apprenticeship scheme to ensure there is always a pipeline of new talent feeding into our business. We’ve also invested heavily in making recruitment and progression in our organisation more inclusive. For example, now four of our six executive board members are women, we are a participant in the government’s Disability Confident scheme, run unconscious bias training and have inclusivity embedded in our cultural framework.
The ‘build it and they will come’ attitude doesn’t work anymore and collectively we must take ownership of the problem. That means proactively engaging with candidates from different backgrounds and providing the training needed to shape skillsets to suit company needs.
Mr Johnson’s proposals are the latest in a long line of moves from various governments aimed at addressing the imbalance between academic and vocational qualifications. I firmly believe that it is the business community that can drive the effectiveness of those policies.
Economically, we are at a tipping point and the need for firms to take the lead in championing vocational career pathways has never been greater. Without this change, people will struggle to gain the skills they need and the talent shortages in key industries will go unchecked.