Bridging the gap

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Unemployment figures tend to draw focus on the younger generation. But, as Jane Scott Paul points out, learning later in life can be just as important to finding a job and developing a successful career

The country is in a deeper recession than previously thought with new figures revealing a shrinking economy and a sharper decline in the first three months in 2012. Despite the Government’s efforts to stimulate the job market, youth unemployment remains high and the proportion of people over the age of 24 not in education, employment or training (NEETs) is a persistent concern.

We have a lost generation of people – who left school without GCSEs or A-levels – who have since steered clear of further education, training and often employment. We also have the issue of those who did embark on higher education but obtained university degrees which have not led to meaningful employment. We have many unemployed graduates and we still have a skills shortage.

The rising number of NEETs goes hand in hand with the current economic climate and one can only assume that by fixing one problem, the other should naturally improve. But how are we supposed to grow economically and come out of recession when there are so many people who are out of work, don’t have the right skills and don’t feel they have the opportunity to gain skills later in life?

The 2012 NIACE Adult Participation in Learning survey released in May shows the number of adults that have participated in learning at least once over the previous three years is declining. In fact, it has dropped from 43% in 2010 to 38% in 2012.

What is even more alarming is that of those adults participating in learning, 44% are in full-time employment compared with 24% who are outside of the workforce. Furthermore, adults are much less likely to be taking part in learning if they are retired, outside of the labour market, in a low skilled job, or if they didn’t do well in school.

In other words, those that would most benefit from learning later in life (the NEETs) are the least likely to be doing it.

We know that participation in learning not only helps people secure work and feel more confident in the workplace, it also means they can take on more responsibility and climb the career ladder. One of our members and a former decorator and painter, David Stephenson returned to study at age 29 and he is now a Financial Accountant at one of the UK’s leading retailers – Morrisons. David is a shining example of how one can use a new qualification not only to up skill but to change careers. In doing so David has transformed his long term prospects.

At the moment, there is no incentive for employers to encourage adult learning even though the benefits to their business – motivated and loyal workers who can bring new ideas and skills to the table – are apparent.

Alongside the declining number of adults in learning and education, the Government has introduced the much debated FE loans or 24+ Advanced Learning Loans as a way of reducing public expenditure. The scheme replaces subsidised FE courses for adults with student loans. From 2013, those over the age of 24 studying at level 3 or A-level equivalent and above will be able to borrow money to pay course fees in full. Like university students, adult FE students will have no upfront costs but will repay their loan once their earnings reach £21,000.

In theory, 24+ Advanced Learning Loans should attract more adults into education but recent predictions have shown that 42% of adults would be unwilling to take out a loan under the new proposed system. Lack of understanding seems to be the reason. The concept of indebtedness is, understandably, not appealing to anyone given the current economic climate. But some of the positive highlights of the loans, including low interest rates and the fact that repayments are not due until after you earn £21,000, are not clear. Why hasn’t more been done to deliver a positive message about how these loans work so that there is more interest in their uptake?

I fear that the misconceptions and lack of information and communication around 24+ Advanced Learning Loans will exclude many people who would otherwise benefit from taking part. Public perception still suggests our education system is complicated, rather than fair and accessible to all. And if this continues, the number of adult learners will continue to drop whilst the number of NEETs will carry on increasing.

By not doing enough to incentivise the over 24s into further education, we run the risk of obstructing social mobility. The 24+ Advanced Learning Loans have the potential to mobilise hundreds of people into education – and given the shortage of jobs, shouldn’t we be doing more to encourage people to enter into training rather than doing nothing at all?

Lifelong learning is a way of raising the skills of the workforce, reducing the number of NEETs, improving employment prospects and supporting inclusion in mainstream society. Now, more than ever, we need to be encouraging individuals to reach their potential. Do this and we may just have an opportunity to stimulate economic recovery within the UK.

Jane Scott Paul is Chief Executive of AAT.

Jane Scott Paul was AAT's Chief Executive between 1997 and 2014.

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