Government must think again and put training at the heart of its Coronavirus response

The Government must prioritise skills to mitigate an unemployment crisis, writes Wes Streeting MP, Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury

Labour is clear: training must be at the heart of the coronavirus response.

As more and more local areas face local restrictions to tackle the spread of Covid-19, the Government must not repeat the same mistakes of the last six months.

Focusing on the impact of public health restrictions on education, particularly in schools and universities, is right. But we must not forget the important role that training plays in the UK economy, and the risks of not supporting individuals to train and re-skill as part of the economic response to the pandemic.

We must protect the jobs that people already have, especially in sectors of strategic importance to the UK economy such as the arts and aerospace. But we should also be equipping people for the secure, skilled jobs of the future.

The Government’s inadequate replacement to the furlough scheme looks set to trigger a period of structural change in the UK economy on a scale not seen since the 1980s. The resulting unemployment crisis risks seeing millions of jobs lost that would otherwise be viable in the medium-term. At the same time, industries and occupations that are growing or expected to grow, ranging from social care to renewable energy, will require many people to start or switch careers through training.

Last week the Government ‘announced’ a mixture of re-heated old policies and small schemes around training. The centrepiece was a Lifetime Skills Guarantee that only serves to reverse a decision taken by the Coalition Government. But the vast majority of the funding will not come into effect until April 2021. That risks being too late for the one million workers who have already lost their job, many of whom will have been out of work for almost a year by then.

Millions more are either at risk of unemployment or face another six months of reduced hours working. The Government could have included a training element alongside both the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the new Job Support Scheme, but it hasn’t done so. This is a disaster for those who could have benefitted from training opportunities taking place in their unexpected free time since the start of the pandemic, gaining valuable skills to get on in life.

Instead, all that the Government has put in place is an under-used digital-only offer, which has achieved just 16,200 course completions despite over nine million workers being furloughed throughout the pandemic.

Earlier this month we heard the news that the Government was withdrawing funding from Unionlearn – a scheme run by the TUC that helps to train over a quarter of a million workers every year.

In a speech to Labour’s recent virtual conference, Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds outlined Labour’s alternative. First, we need to protect jobs with a Job Recovery scheme that incentivises employers to offer their staff high quality, properly accredited training. Other countries have done this without difficulty. The French wage support scheme subsidy for employers is higher for employees who undertake training.

Secondly, we need a proper National Retraining Strategy for the unemployed and those facing unemployment – a strategy that prioritises building capacity in the adult education, JobCentre Plus and Further Education network, to ensure those who want or need to retrain can access the opportunities they desperately need. The government should urgently bring forward more of the £3bn earmarked for the National Skills Fund to pay for this.

It is not just Labour calling for urgent action to support training. Recently, everyone from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for training to be central to the Government’s economic response. Labour agrees. By building training into a Job Recovery Scheme and bringing forward announced funding to deliver a National Retraining Strategy, we can support individuals facing an uncertain winter to access the jobs of the future and support the recovery.

About the author

Wes Streeting isLabour Member of Parliament for Ilford North and Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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