Employment and skills haven’t exactly been hot topics during this election campaign. Happily, they are squarely on the agenda of all the main parties. Most of the parties have made significant policy announcements in their manifestos about adult learning and are offering more funding. That’s good, but it isn’t enough to deliver the opportunities that are so sorely needed in many parts of our country. As we move into a new decade, we have the chance to meet three big challenges in order to unleash opportunity and deliver secure living standards.
- Record employment isn’t unlocking poverty.
We all know that getting into work should free people from poverty, but 4 million workers, around 1 in 8 now live in poverty. The rising minimum wage is very welcome, but it doesn’t free workers from poverty on its own. Too many people get stuck right at the bottom of the jobs market – low paid, insecure. The vast majority of low paid workers (5 in 6 of them) are still low paid a decade later. The idea of an entry level job which leads on to better paid work in time has become a pipe dream for many workers.
- Employers aren’t investing in low paid staff.
Many firms invest very little in their low paid staff. The only training that many low paid workers get is induction, health and safety – the absolute minimum they need to do the current job. Training budgets tend to be spent on workers higher up. Investment supports those who are already doing well to do move further, whilst leaving those at the bottom exactly where they started.
- Workers are held back by a lack of flexibility.
In many ways we have a very flexible labour market, but that masks a lack of flexibility where we need it most. Too many workers stay in low paid jobs, despite having the skills to move up, because the design of the jobs they would move into doesn’t allow for part-time or flexible work. Some employers have started to change this, discovering a pool of talent that they can tap into to build their business as soon as more better paid jobs become flexible. A lack of flexible work also restricts low paid staff from doing the training which could open up opportunity. The four top barriers to adult learning are cost, lack of time and inability to fit learning around work or family life.
Whatever the outcome of the election, we will move into the next decade with a government which has committed to invest more in adult learning. We must ensure this really does unleash opportunity for those who are held back. Here are our three top tips to make it happen:
- Concentrate on training that will aid progression for workers in poverty.
- Employers input and contributions will be vital: state funding and provision isn’t enough. The government must bring together employers and the education sector to develop a consistent, strategic approach to adult education and lifelong learning.
- Address the other barriers to progression alongside skills: childcare, transport, job design to facilitate flexible working.
Helen Barnard is Deputy Director of Policy & Partnerships at Joseph Rowntree Foundation