By David Hagendyk, Director for Wales
In England the Liberal Democrats have announced plans for a £9000 Learning and Skills Account, while Sajid Javid floated similar plans during the Conservative Leadership contest. Around the world similar models are starting to have an impact in participation in learning and training.
In Wales a pilot programme, first committed to in the Employability Plan in 2018, has been launched. Run by Coleg Gwent and Grŵp Llandrillio Menai, the pilot will support people already in work to retrain for careers in specific sectors with skills shortages.
To support the development of the pilot we interviewed prospective learners and employers in both areas. What they told us illustrate some of the key challenges that providers, advisory services and government will need to overcome to make it successful:
Flexibility: people explained how the world of work has changed and why this has big implications for the sort of flexibility they need. In a world where people may not know how long or when they’ll work from week to week, planning learning is incredibly difficult for both providers and individuals. The challenge for providers is to respond with flexible learning pathways that allow individuals to combine their learning with changing work and family commitments. Putting on more evenings and weekend courses will work for some, but for others the experience will need to be highly personalised and responsive.
Support: before taking the jump back into education individuals need persuading that the time and effort it involves will be worthwhile. They will weigh the benefits against costs (including time and opportunity cost) and look at the practical barriers they will face and the support they will have. The role of Working Wales is helping to identify need and find solutions will be important, but long-term addressing barriers such as childcare and access to public transport (especially on weekends and evenings) requires a whole system response. Lifelong learning will be an important driver of Wales’ future prosperity and this pilot will test whether the system can provide the support they need.
Links with employers: learners wanted to know that the course was credible and would lead to real opportunities with local employers. If they are going to commit to months of hard work they want to know there would be something for them at the end of it. Close links with local employers were identified as one way to help them understand the expectations of employers and the opportunities available to them in each sector. Colleges have both wide and deep connections with local employers and it will be essential that they are leveraged to help learners find work.
Credibility with potential new employers: finally, employers had some important messages too. There is real positivity about the programme, a willingness to engage with it and broad support for the qualifications on offer. Two concerns though were evident: firstly, some employers expressed broad concerns that FE doesn’t always produce work-ready individuals while others tended to favour training on the job rather than recruiting from accredited college programmes. Whether this is fair or not, the pilot needs to establish credibility with employers so that learners, when qualified, are ready to embark on their new careers and set for a lifetime of future learning.
The challenge of lifelong employability is crucial to our collective future. Policy-makers elsewhere in the world will follow the pilot to assess whether it can be an answer to low pay and to meeting Wales’ future skill needs. We should watch it closely ourselves to understand how we need to change the system to make it work for individuals and employers. It could offer some important lessons for how we want the system to look as we enter the next decade.