Jonathan Clark: Skilling our workforce is not academic exercise

92 per cent of Modern Apprentices staying in work once qualified. Picture: Contributed

92 per cent of Modern Apprentices staying in work once qualified. Picture: Contributed

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The number of ­people who go on to higher education is often considered a hallmark of a successful, competitive ­economy.

The number of ­people who go on to higher education is often considered a hallmark of a successful, competitive ­economy.

With the proportion of graduates in the UK population now reaching 40 per cent for the first time, the country is certainly doing well by this measure, but it is only one element of a more nuanced picture that shows a great deal more could be done to create a responsive skills system that maximises the potential for economic growth.

A recent report by consultants PwC on youth employment ranks the UK 21st out of 34 OECD countries.

Germany is the best-performing EU country in the index. The report says that if we could match their low levels of unemployment, the UK’s GDP could be boosted by 3 per cent, or £55 billion a year.

What this highlights is that if we value other learning streams in the same way we do our universities, the benefits to our economy would be very substantial.

The challenge is to build on the successes of our education and skills system and to unlock this further potential.

The problem is that vocational education and training has been cast as a route for young people who aren’t achieving in the academic path, while university degrees are used as a proxy measure of “the right stuff,” driving a knowledge-based economy.

This reflects a strong policy emphasis and public investment in higher education since the early 1990s, but the result is a cultural schism between the vocational and the academic.

This polarisation is at the heart of the difference between the UK youth labour market and those at the top end of performance.

The UK has much higher levels of young people not in education or employment than those at the top of the index. Recent reports by the Work Foundation and the CIPD also point to significant levels of graduate underemployment.

In countries like Germany and Switzerland a strong and well functioning work based learning pathway sits alongside the academic route. Both pathways add to economic, social and cultural advancement. Indeed, recent work by the Bertelsmann Foundation suggests the future of the German “dual system” will see closer integration between the vocational and the academic routes, taking a long-term approach in human capital that builds higher level technical and professional skills.

Such integration creates coherent work-based career pathways for young people, and is more than simply a cure for youth employment – vocational pathways are a way of driving growth and employment across a range of sectors and occupations.

This lies at the very heart of the Scottish Government’s Youth Employment Strategy, and it is something which SDS is focused on, with a number of key initiatives aimed at integrating education and enterprise, creating inclusive growth that benefits everyone.

SDS is committed to increasing the number of Modern Apprenticeship starts each year in Scotland from 25,000 to 30,000 by 2020, enhancing the work-based learning system and tackling youth unemployment.

The figures speak for themselves, with 92 per cent of Modern Apprentices staying in work once qualified, while 96 per cent of employers say staff who have undertaken a Modern Apprenticeship are more able to do their job.

At the same time, we are already well on the way to learning the lessons from countries such as Germany at the top of the OECD youth employment rankings.

During Learning Through Work Week we announced a partnership with global IT firm CGI on the first graduate apprenticeship in digital skills, offering a degree level qualification with at least 20 places over the next two years.

It is this sort of joined-up approach which can help us climb those youth em-ployment rankings and begin to realise that growth potential.

• Jonathan Clark is director of Service Design and Innovation, Skills Development Scotland

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