24 July 2007

"Skills gap" rhetoric - but where's the beef?

A couple of months ago I wrote:

The idea that, in the words of the Green Paper, the UK economy “will increasingly demand more highly skilled employees” is regularly trotted out to justify the relentless expansion, at the taxpayer’s expense, of “education”. As far as I’m aware, no political party now questions (or dares to question) this principle. But it strikes me as hopelessly undefined, unanalysed, unsupported by hard data, and probably false.

Could someone please direct me to some actual cogent reasoning in favour of expanding state-financed education? Something less handwaving than the usual “New Economy … different skills … more training … cannot compete”?
My hopes were raised by a Financial Times Survey published last week entitled “Understanding the Skills Gap”. Surely the FT would finally provide some cogent economic arguments to explain the nature of the skills gap, and why it calls for additional government intervention. Not just the usual handwaving stuff we get from the other broadsheets (another dose was provided on Sunday, by David Smith).

Sadly, it was not to be. Apart from alluding repeatedly to the Leitch Report, no useful analytical arguments were made in clarifying the nature of the “skills gap”, beyond the fact that the UK has a basic literacy and numeracy problem.

At some point I suppose I shall have to wade through the LR itself – when I have time. (Someone like me, i.e. without a pro-state bias, should be being paid to do so, but I doubt they are.) Meanwhile, here is a selection of the best would-be pearls of wisdom from the FT Survey.
Britain fails to make the OECD top 10 for basic literacy and numeracy skills … [or for] graduate skills.
No surprise there. The basic problem is, many people emerging from state schools at the age of 16 still haven't learnt how to write or add up. No reason to think another two years of the same will do it. But what are "graduate skills"? We are not told.
For the economy to continue growing, UK workers … need to be better equipped to do their jobs. [No further analysis is provided, so this is a fairly vacuous statement.]
The Director-General of British Chambers of Commerce: “As I go round the country, every company I speak to is using as much migrant labour as it can get hold of. It is always for the same reasons: workers from Poland come with far better skills and a better attitude.” This suggests the real skills gap is partly one of mindset. A problem hardly likely to be solved by forcing pupils to stay on even longer in environments in which they would otherwise not choose to remain.
To be among the top eight most skilled countries in the world, the UK will need: 2.3m more people with literacy skills; 5.1m more with numeracy skills ... and about 5.5m with experience of higher education.
Literacy, numeracy — these are self-explanatory. But what is the benefit of "higher education" supposed to be? No explanation is given.

Employer body SEMTA tells us that:
70 per cent of jobs where there are skills shortages are among technical and engineering skills or craft, operator and technician occupations, with the biggest problem in machine operation.
Nothing which two years of extra compulsory schooling will help with. What about compulsory training in those occupations? Possibly, if you believe (as Labour seems to be starting to) that market failures of this kind are best solved by means of coercion.

SEMTA also tells us that
most companies now provide some sort of induction or conversion programme for new employees - especially recent graduates - to get used to what the company needs in terms of teamwork, communication and problem-solving.
For this, try reading: "Most companies are now forced to provide a programme which remedies the deficiences of GCSE education, and to get people used to the idea that businesses — unlike some comprehensive schools — are not anarchic hellholes of unruliness and despair, or X-generation enclaves like some so-called universities."

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports: "Our members are reporting generally negative experiences of the government institutions and bodies set up to promote skills." Asked to say something positive about the Leitch Report, the CIPD can apparently only come up with: "it is less prescriptive than some that we have seen in the past."

The Institute of Employment Studies agrees that "so far a lot of employers are sceptical of the government's efforts to close the skills gap and most are fairly indifferent."

A single dissident sceptical note by a journalist about the Leitch Report is sounded by the FT’s Martin Wolf (give that man a medal for cutting through bull):
The Leitch report looks like just another in a series of proposals to remedy the failures of schooling.
Yes, but the report is being used to justify another two years of that same schooling, by depriving seventeen-year olds of their right to decide how to live their lives; rather than considering a far less extreme solution: abolishing state education. Well, it's less extreme, morally speaking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

to get used to what the company needs in terms of teamwork, communication and problem-solving.

So why did they need to go to uni, exactly? If learning to communicate or solve problems was not involved?