In the early months of the pandemic, forecasters predicted dire consequences for employment in just about every sector of the UK economy. The Bank of England thought the unemployment rate would rise above 10% as the worst economic recession for 300 years hit home.
While the employment market has been rocked it has proved surprisingly resilient, and those predictions turned out to be rather far off the mark. The government’s emergency measures have been successful in fending off the worst-case scenario.
In fact, we are facing a different kind of jobs crisis. Vacancies are soaring, but now we can’t find people to fill them. Recruiters are talking about “record-breaking” increases in labour costs in sectors linked to construction and shortages that threaten to hold up projects.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics is startling: Between May and July, there were 38,000 vacancies in the construction industry, which is the highest for more than 20 years. Most of the headlines have been about cost inflation prompted by a shortage of raw materials, but the ONS says weekly earnings jumped by 14% in June compared with the same month last year (another record) and it now looks like a shortage of skilled people is just as likely to derail the current economic recovery.
There are widespread reports of clients paying record hourly rates simply to keep key trades on site because project delays would be even more expensive. This is putting pressure on already tight profit margins and stoking up tension in supply chains.
Some of the worker shortage could be put down to Brexit, but that is only part of the picture. We have not been training enough people for years and we are not training in the right areas, but none of that is new – we have had the same problem for several decades. This might be a particularly acute employment cycle, but it is just that – another cycle – and we know the next one is just around the corner.
How do we smooth out these employment peaks and troughs and make sure we are producing the right amount of people with the right skills?
Well, there are a couple of developments that are new and which might hold the answer: A big change in the attitude of school leavers and digital technology that allows us to disrupt the way we deliver learning.
Let’s consider the first: This summer’s cohort of school leavers are looking much more closely at their options. The university admissions service UCAS reported that just 18% of last year’s graduates found jobs at the end of their degrees. In a normal year that proportion would be around 60%, but it has prompted many of this year’s intake to rethink whether they want to run up student debts that average more than £50,000 with no guarantee of a job at the end.
UCAS is also reporting growing interest in degree apprenticeships where an employer covers the student’s costs and provides a job on graduation. This not only solves the debt problem, but also ensures the graduate ends up with a high-level qualification and the experience needed to kick start their career.
UCAS’s Career Finder service is pairing applicants with employers and its popularity prompted the organisation’s CEO Clare Marchant to predict the end of the ‘traditional’ three-year university degree model. “We want to see other options,” she told the Sunday Times. “Parents should encourage teenagers to consider degree apprenticeships.”
Many universities are now offering this hybrid approach in partnership with employers and there were 9,000 such opportunities on the UCAS website at the last count. It is an imaginative approach to addressing the regular complaint from employers that thousands of graduates from three years study without skills that make them employable.
It also opens up new opportunities for our universities many of which are the envy of the world, but have been under concerted attack for charging high fees for irrelevant courses. Going to university is still a wonderful experience, and it is good for our society that so many have the opportunity. The secret is harnessing that great experience to their career prospects and so making it a wider benefit to our economy.
Delivering skills-based learning is also a lifelong activity. Our industry must attract a far larger number of people who are at the start of their career journey, but we must also keep updating their skills throughout that journey to ensure they remain relevant.
That brings me to digital disruption and how this can remould or ways of delivering learning.
The BESA Academy, which is celebrating its first anniversary this week, has already surpassed expectations and is living proof of the ‘blended’ approach of linking digital resources to a practical, technical industry.
The Academy is an online service, which has already seen more than 6,000 enrolled onto their free and paid courses, taking advantage of almost 4,000 hours of online training across its broad programme of training courses, assessments and CPDs.
It has developed 19 courses for online delivery and supported 10 separate apprenticeships in Scotland and Wales. It is also another way for students taking T-levels to access learning resources.
BESA was already committed to the ‘hybrid’ model of theoretical and physical training before the pandemic, but we accelerated our plans to support the sector when Covid-19 struck and closed down thousands of training centres around the country.
As it happens, the restrictions of lockdown turned out to be an ideal way to prove the principle.
With even the chief executive of UCAS predicting the demise of the traditional degree, it is important that new platforms like the BESA Academy are developed to support a whole new model for higher and further education – and for lifelong learning. This model will not replace what we have done well in the past but rather take it forward and make it relevant for the changing needs of both employers and the engineers that will shape our future world.