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Government, industry and academia must work together more closely in support of training and apprenticeships, a former minister has told Working Voices. Margot James, who until July 2019 was the minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, called for a more joined-up approach in managing workplace training programmes, as Britain edges closer to life after lockdown. James said: “There’s a lot that does need to change and change quite rapidly given the fact that people are going to need retraining far more urgently than they have done hitherto.”

Asked how the UK might speed up recovery after lockdown, James called for a co-ordinated approach to investment. She said: “The government need to carry on with the impetus they had before the crisis struck, on investing in R&D, investing in infrastructure and the levelling up agenda between regions…there has to be some very creative work done between government, industry and academia to maximise the impact of investment in those vital areas.”

Earlier this year, James took up her post as the Executive Chair of WMG, a department at the University of Warwick that brings together academia and the public and private sectors. Looking beyond coronavirus, James called for organisations to work together as effectively as they have been doing in their response to the crisis. She said: “Institutions like WMG have a huge role to play in terms of bringing key players together.”

Learning at Work Week

James’s comments come ahead of Learning at Work Week in the UK, (May 18 – May 24). Described as the biggest festival of workplace learning, the annual event is co-ordinated by the Campaign for Learning and led by employers. This year it’s been forced online by lockdown, though a traditional face-to-face campaign will run in October. Lockdown, in the UK and beyond, has corroded job security as employers battle to secure their business amid the painful fallout of coronavirus. As people prepare for the new normal, there has been an international surge in demand for online training courses, via virtual learning platforms available at Working Voices and elsewhere.

The Resolution Foundation thinktank says that more than two-thirds of businesses in the UK (67%) had applied for help from the government’s job retention scheme by the middle of April. According to HMRC, 6.3 million people have been furloughed by 800,000 companies. This figure is likely to climb as companies eat into their cash reserves, with some estimates predicting up to 9 million people eventually being furloughed, or 27% of the UK workforce. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, just over half (54%) of businesses responding to its weekly survey (in the period April 29 – May 1) had three months’ cash in reserve or less. No reliable data exist yet on how many people are unemployed, directly because of the Covid-19 lockdown. However, according to the Resolution Foundation, over two million new claims for benefits have been made since mid-March.

Margot James suggests a third of the economy is not functioning at all (for example airlines), a third is struggling (particularly white-collar businesses) and a third is doing well, (including food retailers and big tech companies such as Zoom). James said: “For a third of the economy to be essentially shut down is going to have very far-reaching effects when we come out of the immediate crisis.”

She’s concerned that many businesses will find it hard to socially distance once the lockdown is lifted and will only be able to gradually “rejoin the economy”. This will lead to an inequality in society where some occupations – airline pilots or restaurant managers for example – will struggle compared with others, such as a manufacturer of PPE. She called for proactive policy initiatives from government to try to offset some of the disadvantages that will be experienced by those in vulnerable occupations.

Lifting the lid on the levy

Such initiatives could include a review of the controversial apprenticeship levy, under which employers with an annual payroll of more than £3m must pay 0.5% of their total payroll expenditure into a protected apprenticeship pot, which is supplemented by public money and overseen by the Treasury. Tight rules exist on how the money can be used, and any cash unspent after two years is retained by the Treasury.  

In February, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) found that at least 55 of the largest employers in England have lost £1m or more in unspent levy, and a total of £400m was lost to the government rather than spent on apprenticeships. In scathing comments on the failure to spend this cash, James said: “It is a sad inditement of the difference between the thinking and vision behind government policy and the end result. What an inditement that is. It’s deeply frustrating. Is a rethink required? The answer is loud and clear yes.”

In the past, companies were allowed to spend a limited amount of the money on apprenticeships in one other firm, perhaps in their supply chain for example. This rule has since been relaxed. But James said other rules need to be re-examined too, for example apprenticeship schemes only need to be reviewed once every five years which she believes is too long a gap.

She suggested employees studying for degree apprenticeships should be allowed to complete as much of the academic element of their course as possible while they are at home – whether they are furloughed or otherwise unable to return to the workplace. James suggested this is permissible under the rules of the furlough scheme and would allow staff to return to full-time work sooner than expected, just as the company kickstarts its recovery.

New skills for the new normal

For James, the crisis has brought into sharp focus the underlying problems that Britain was already experiencing. Regional imbalances, and shortages of skills in areas such as digital technology, needed to be addressed before the virus hit. Now, as the UK sets out on the road to recovery, James anticipates a greater need for people to be digitally skilled. She is concerned that: “The digital divide within society is going to be more marked as a result of this crisis and therefore the urgency we need to see people skilled up digitally is going to be even greater.”

Prior to the crisis, the government’s approach to addressing imbalance within the UK principally focused on specific regions.  James said: “We need to bolt on support for certain sectors to the levelling up agenda”, though she stresses the regional divide hasn’t gone away and needs as much attention as it did before. For James, the retraining roadmap she envisages is achievable only if the government and other stakeholders maintain energy and focus. After accelerating into lockdown, and building momentum in response to the virus, now would be the wrong time to take our foot off the gas.

Get involved with Learning at Work Week:

Information from The Campaign for Learning

What is learning at work week?
Learning at Work Week is a unique annual event to build learning cultures at work. The Campaign for Learning coordinate LAW Week nationally and offer resources and ideas for learning & development colleagues looking to run creative, innovative and inclusive activities as part of their Learning at Work Week campaigns.

If there is a better time for your organisation and its employees to mark Learning at Work, you can use the resources and ideas to run the week at a time suitable for your workplace.

Who can take part?
All companies and organisations are invited to mark Learning at Work Week. Participating companies include Virgin Media, American Express, Canon UK and GroupM. Events are led and organised by HR and L&D colleagues, ULRs, learning champions, marketing and communication colleagues and often delivered collaboratively.

What opportunities does it provide?
Learning at Work Week offers an opportunity to run a branded learning campaign in your workplace linked to a national event. Each year, thousands of organisations run vibrant, creative campaigns and activities which promote a learning culture, stimulate curiosity and engage employees in learning.

What do companies do for Learning at Work Week?
Many companies use the Week as a catalyst for change providing an opportunity to ‘rebrand’ or refresh learning and development, reinforcing the organisation’s commitment to staff development and celebrating learning that takes place all year round.

Why take part?
For your own organisation, the reasons for taking part will depend on your particular context and goals. Companies and individuals that have taken part previously report a wide range of opportunities and benefits.

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