With millions losing their jobs in the aftermath of COVID-19, workers will need additional support to successfully navigate the labour market.
With the UK now in its deepest recession on record, it’s not surprising that protecting jobs has been top of the economic policy agenda. But short-term wage subsidies are not the only thing needed to help workers and the economy bounce back.
In a major speech last week, Boris Johnson spoke for the first time about the Government’s new skills policy, and its headline offer of a ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain – at any stage in their lives’.
The measures – which include free technical courses for adults in England who don’t yet have A-levels or equivalent, ‘digital skills boot camps’ and adapting student loans for further as well as higher education – are intended to help people who need to change jobs to find new opportunities. The Prime Minister gave the example of a retail worker who might want to retrain to work in the wind farm sector, space technology, construction or low-carbon home retrofitting.
He is right, of course, to point out that the impact of COVID-19 will prompt many people to change not just their jobs, but their careers. However, moving successfully into a completely different line of work is not easy – and Nesta’s extensive work and research in this area shows more is needed than just a Lifetime Skills Guarantee if vulnerable workers are to successfully navigate this difficult switch.
In the first six months of 2020, 6.1 per cent of UK-based employees (more than two million people) changed occupations – of which over half moved into entirely new industries. As the furlough scheme ends, it’s likely these numbers will only increase.
The process of changing careers is extremely demanding. As a first step, people need to understand how they can apply their experience and skills in different roles. Our research with workers in Newport found that many people find it hard even to identify the skills they already have.
Workers also need help to see what realistic job transition options look like for them, and what additional skills would help open up new opportunities. And they need plenty of other information about jobs too – including on factors such as flexible working and commuting time.
In his speech, Johnson namechecked growth industries in different parts of the country – but for most of us, this information is neither front-of-mind nor easy to access.
Workers in transition need more information on what jobs are growing and declining now, and which jobs have the best long-term prospects.
We think all these issues can be addressed, at least in part, by tools that give jobseekers much more granular and personalised information. There’s now much more data available to power such tools, both from big public datasets and from user-generated sources such as online CVs and job adverts.
However, there’s also a need to ensure that these solutions are actually useful to workers and don’t inadvertently provide bad advice, close down their options, or bake in bias and existing inequalities. At the moment, most such tools are ‘black box’, meaning we don't know how they work.
We’d therefore like to see greater investment in open source, transparent tools both for workers and the people who advise them. Nesta is supporting innovation in this space through the CareerTech Challenge and the newly-launched Rapid Recovery Challenge.
In addition, our research project, Mapping Career Causeways, is analysing more than 1,600 jobs to see which are similar to each other in terms of skills requirements and work characteristics. We think this information could help workers make more informed choices about how they can transition from one job or sector to another, and what skills or extra training they need to make the move.
Of course, the responsibility for retraining cannot rest on individuals alone. Johnson referred to the drop in adult learner numbers, but failed to mention that employer investment in training (per employee) has dropped significantly over the last decade.
Arguably, a Lifetime Skills Guarantee should include more than just access to courses and the tools to help with decision-making. There could be workers’ rights to receive training, and incentives for employers to provide that training to their staff.
Employers may also need support to identify the skills that would make them more competitive in a fast-changing market, while ‘bootcamp’ training initiatives should be linked to real opportunities (for example, by securing commitments from employers to take on people who have been trained).
Furthermore, training provision itself also needs an overhaul. The pandemic has accelerated the need for everyone to have digital skills as millions of people are working from home, remotely or have been forced online. But it has also highlighted that learning doesn't need to be so expensive, time-consuming or time-bound. Designing better adult learning experiences is crucial in preparing people for our changing world of work.
In short, while a Lifetime Skills Guarantee is the correct aspiration, we think the Government needs to think bigger and more broadly about how best to support the UK workforce at this time of extraordinary change.