Scotland will need skills to survive in harsh post-Covid world – Craig Vickery

Scotland’s economy is now facing a test that it cannot afford to fail with fears unemployment could hit 13 per cent by the end of the year, writes Craig Vickery.

Face masks are part of our new normal, along with social distancing and home working. But beyond the physical changes to the nature of work, what about the skills needed to deliver it, asks Craig Vickery.  (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)
Face masks are part of our new normal, along with social distancing and home working. But beyond the physical changes to the nature of work, what about the skills needed to deliver it, asks Craig Vickery. (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

Should we all ever get back to our offices, we will find a new and alien world. Social distancing is here to stay, at least until a vaccine can be found, so physical spacing, screens, face masks will become increasingly commonplace indoors and on the commute.

What about face-to-face meetings now we’ve all been forced to master Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business, and have been conducting ourselves from home? Will office workers be back to the ‘old life’ in corporeal form any time soon? Sitting at a desk? Riding the train or underground? At the moment, the advice in Scotland remains that people should work from home, if possible.

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While the physical world of work looks likely to be very different, what about the nature of work and the skills needed to deliver it?

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The enormous economic challenges posed by Covid-19 mean that Scotland, like every other nation, needs to make sure it has the skills and resilience in the workplace to secure recovery. As an advisory board member for the Centre for Work Based Learning in Scotland, I know that even before the global pandemic, Scotland was facing some well-documented challenges in equipping its ageing population with the right skills. Skills shortages cost our economy extra and contribute to poor productivity growth, stalled pay rates and low social mobility.

In a post-Covid economic recession, we have to be fully equipped with in-demand and relevant skills, allied to lifelong learning in order to weather what is predicted to be a long-term downturn.

Although Scotland currently has very high employment, the UK Government’s furlough scheme has so far delayed the true picture which is starting to emerge of rocketing unemployment figures.

In any event, the Scottish Government advisory group on economic recovery recently warned that low productivity and low pay were still issues in its report, Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland.

The report highlighted that full employment was masking some hidden drawbacks, such as one million of the 2.5 million working population earning between £14,000 and £24,000.

They advocated for a rebalancing to address skills shortages and to place graduates in well-paid careers, and a guarantee of two years’ work, paid at least at minimum wage, for all aged 16-25 years.

The report made many recommendations, including closer working ties between government and business leaders, investment in a ‘green spine’ to economic recovery and accelerated investment in digital infrastructure for superfast fibre and mobile networks. A key focus was on re-skilling and lifelong learning to address the shadow of unemployment.

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The Scottish unemployment rate has crept up slightly this quarter to 4.6 per cent, but this discounts the fact that 750,000 Scots are either furloughed or self-employed and currently unable to work, and it is predicted to rise to between eight and 13 per cent by the end of 2020, with at least three years before a return to normal levels, according to scenarios drawn up by the Scottish Government’s chief economist.

To address this considerable economic issue, they rightly conclude that the focus must be on a very significant response in terms of skills and education. Unemployed Scots must be supported to retrain with relevant skills in order to transition to new jobs.

Those aged 16 to 25 are expected to bear the brunt of this upheaval and will be in urgent need of employability skills to compete in the jobs market, even if they are offered some level of guaranteed employment. At accountancy body ACCA, we’ve been promoting professional qualifications and lifelong learning throughout our existence.

We have been at the forefront of upskilling and re-skilling our members to equip them to face the ever-changing world of financial services, which has thrown up constantly evolving challenges such as digital tools, requiring modern accountants to become strategic business partners, rather than purely financial compliance leaders.

Our industry is a good example of one which can promote social mobility and offer people with relevant skills and the dedication to maintain lifelong learning the ability to follow well-paid and absorbing careers. Members help businesses to develop their strategy for wealth creation, which helps Scottish companies to prosper and bring secure and competitive jobs to the country. And areas like the International Financial Services District in Glasgow secure inward investment.

James Reed, chief executive of the recruitment specialists Reed Group, recently told Radio 4 that not all sectors are retrenching and that accountants and financial professionals are still in demand on the jobs market, presumably a reflection on the fact that they are equipped with the relevant skills to battle economic hardship.

In our recent report Accountants, Purpose and Sustainable Organisations, author Sharon Machado reflected that accountants must have the ‘know-how’ to create, protect and communicate value. The report added: “This relevant know-how must adapt, as the impact of the dynamics of change alter what is needed to sustain value for the long term.”

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Some recent welcome good news was the fact that employers in Scotland have taken on more than 29,000 modern and graduate apprentices in the last year. However, the economic impact of the global pandemic has meant that both employers and apprentices have been plunged into uncertainty over the future of these valuable schemes.

And, aside from the pandemic or perhaps because of the pandemic, there may well be an even greater need for more of these work-based learning schemes to deliver young people into sustainable employment that teaches skills valued by employers. Modern apprenticeships capture a greater proportion of young people than merely graduate schemes and offer a pathway to a degree.

ACCA partners with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen for its Graduate Apprenticeship BA (Hons) in Accounting. Throughout the five-year course, students are in full-time paid work and combine course learning with on the job, work based learning. The option also incorporates ACCA professional qualifications, preparing them for lifelong learning via continuous professional development. Later in their career, they’ll be expected to live up to ACCA Professional Quotients and demonstrate the various virtues of being creative, digital, having emotional intelligence, experience, intelligence and vision.

As a country facing extreme economic challenges, with a background of difficult pre-existing issues, we need to refocus even more on re-skilling, upskilling and equipping our people with the ability and resilience to withstand the harsh post-Covid world.

If surviving the crisis has become increasingly about efforts to test, test, test for the virus then thriving after the crisis may well come down to skills, skills, skills. As a nation, we cannot afford to fail the test.

Craig Vickery is the head of ACCA Scotland

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