A century ago, more than 1.5 m people in the UK were employed as Domestic Servants or were, to use the expression of the day “In Service”. It was an incredibly tough life for very low wages and unlike the Downton Abbey vision of maids combing their ladies’ hair all day, most servants led a grim and thankless life.
I was reminded of the old concept of “In Service” when I read last week that the UK economy is now 70% service-based. Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, we no longer make products in the UK, we simply provide a service for those products. So from call-centres to banks, from retail and hospitality to Care, we are all now “in service”. Of course, at the same time, we are all recipients of that service and our expectations of service levels we require are constantly rising. So whilst workers in the service industries may no longer work 12 hour days and live “Below The Stairs”, they are still expected to provide ever-increasing levels of care to their customers.
New Economy – New Skills
The move towards a service-based economy has a profound impact on the skill requirements of our workforce. Thirty years ago, school leavers with low academic qualifications, could still find jobs in shipbuilding, coal, steel or manufacturing. Conditions may have been awful and the work mind-numbingly boring, but they were often jobs for life and were the heart of many working-class communities. Now that those jobs have vanished forever, opportunities for low-skilled workers are almost non-existent and as I have argued many times before, unless we recognise that and address the issue, we are in real danger of creating a generation of young people who won’t just be unemployed – they will be unemployable.
That is why I always use the term “crisis” rather than the preferred government term “problem”, when referring to workforce skills. And in my opinion, it is not just about giving people the skills that will make them employable, it’s about giving them the confidence that will make them believe that they can move on from a low-paid service job and build a genuine career. Last week, I was talking about Functional Skills at an excellent Apprenticeships 4 England funding conference and I told delegates of a comment that had been made to me a few months ago, when an Apprenticeship provider told me that they only worked with hairdressers and that hairdressers did not require Functional maths and English skills to cut hair. Apart from finding the comment incredibly patronising, my response was that surely the purpose of the Apprenticeship wasn’t simply to assess someone’s ability to cut hair but to provide a young adult with the skills which would make them believe they could go on to become a salon manager or even open their own hairdressing salon one day.
Of course, Maths and English are not the only skill areas that we need to address. There are a whole range of “employability” skills where young adults need additional help and we desperately need more extensive careers advice. But at the end of the day, without the ability to communicate effectively and not just simply remember numerical facts, but understand their meaning and their use in different situations, then everything else becomes meaningless. Whilst young adults need no longer bow and scrape to Lord Grantham, they do need to be able to meet and exceed the expectations of their “service” customers. That is why I believe that successive governments have got it just about right in putting Functional Skills at the heart of both Apprenticeship and Traineeship programmes.
Funding is Critical
However, the programmes will only succeed with the right level of funding. The next government Spending Review is published at the end of June and I am fearful that Further Education and workplace funding will be cut again. Of course, there will always be spending limits and priorities, but the skills crisis in the UK is acute and needs to be addressed now, not as part of some long-term plan for the future. If the government wants the UK workforce to be trained to Level 2 in Functional Maths and English, then it has to provide funding at a level that will ensure that high quality providers will be able to deliver the qualifications.
Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills