The opportunity amidst the crisis

By Lord John Bird on

Every crisis is also an opportunity. That is why we at the the Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) are asking the Government to invest heavily in further and higher education. Britain can come ROARing out of coronavirus stronger, richer and more educated than ever before. It is a matter of political will and investing in the right policies. It is patently vital that there is an adequately supported college sector. 

Coronavirus and lockdown have exacerbated the already dire situation for jobless and homeless people. Paid-for education and training can transform the future of people who would otherwise be thrown onto the scrapheap. It is not only a moral outrage but an unnecessary waste of human capital when we fail to give people the education and training, they need to contribute to the economy and to society. 

Skilling people up will reduce unemployment, add to revenue, and therefore contribute towards better funds for our beloved NHS. 

Many people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own since coronavirus reared its ugly head. We urgently need more training that leads to a guaranteed job at the end of the course. A lot of non-academic pupils in college say ‘what is the point of learning [insert subject]?’. But if people know that they get a job at the end and, crucially, that they are paid to reskill, there is a clear incentive to redouble efforts. 

Many low paid jobs are disappearing. We self-checkout and we will have no shop assistants in a few years. Some higher paid jobs are going too. There may be no bank clerks, no pilots, no bus drivers and no taxi drivers in 20 years as automation kicks in further, with potentially self-driving cars, buses, planes. 

Reskilling people is going to become an increasingly pressing need. Unfortunately, since 2010 government funding for colleges has gone down and down in real terms. Simultaneously the number of university places had increased apace. Over 50% of youngsters now go to university. Many of these degrees have little pertinence to the job market. The Government has got its priorities the wrong way around. I am all for book learning. However, academia is not for everyone. Learning a trade should not be underestimated as a means of achieving a remunerative and rewarding career. We need to get over that snobbery that says that university is superior, and that we need to intellectualise everything. 

There is nothing wrong with learning that which is directly applicable to a blue-collar job. Our skills shortage is causing a productivity problem. Brexit is meaning less EU immigration; many of our tradespeople were from the EU. We face an ever-increasing paucity of people trained in trades.

Throughout our lifetimes, as life expectancy increases further, and the ability to retire at the current age seemingly impossible, it is going to be more and more important as we go forward for people to retrain, reskill and reinvent their working persona if you like, several times throughout their lives.

The Confederation of British Industry and the National Union of Students agree with us at RORA that investing in this kind of training is long overdue. It is a no brainer. What we propose is a win-win for all concerned. What we need are short courses that teach workplace relevant skills and trades. These courses would last a few weeks or a few months in most cases. As in any company, the training department first identifies the need. Then it designs the course to satisfy that need. The
Government ought, urgently, to take the same approach.

The training that we propose would be for young adults and not so young adults. Some people did not have many educational opportunities in their youth. Such people deserve more opportunities/ Rishi is winning plaudits from many. However, he would win plaudits from RORA if he found the money to fund the college sector, as we advocate.

At RORA we identify problems and solutions. We are not a political party. How this is funded is up to the parties. Raise tax? Cut spending in other areas? Borrow more? That is a party-political debate in which we will not be engaging.

One thing is clear, that in an economic crisis austerity does not work. Look at the Great Depression, it was Roosevelt’s investment in the economy in 1930s America, through his signature domestic legislation, the ‘New Deal’ which expanded the role of the federal Government in the nation’s economy in an effort to address the challenges of the Great Depression. The answers are clear – so why aren’t we implementing them?