Published on October 23rd, 2015 | by David Bott


It Is People That Make Things Happen

“In the 19th Century, the UK had the natural resources, the labour force and the inspiration to lead the world into the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are witnessing a different type of revolution. For developed countries who cannot compete on natural resources and low labour costs, success demands a more service-led economy and high value-added industry.

In the 21st Century, our natural resource is our people – and their potential is both untapped and vast. Skills will unlock that potential. The prize for our country will be enormous – higher productivity, the creation of wealth and social justice.

The alternative? Without increased skills, we would condemn ourselves to a lingering decline in competitiveness, diminishing economic growth and a bleaker future for all.”

These words introduce an almost 10-year-old government report, written before the financial crash, and therefore in what seems like a different world, but its message is as clear and compelling now as it was then.

There seem to be two aspects to “upskilling” the nation. The first is that we support people to acquire the relevant skills. 20 years ago, it looked like everyone would need “theoretical” skills, so we set out to ensure the highest number of people went to university and were trained up to understand the subjects that would underpin their chosen career. But even then, the practical side of life was recognised within business. According to the man who interviewed me, I got my first job not just because I had a degree in chemistry, but because I had a practical hobby as well. Today, we hear a lot about “apprentices”. Although there is evidence of definition creep, what most people seem to mean by this word is people who can turn their understanding of a subject into practical action. This mostly involves “on the job” training, where they get to implement their learning in the “real world” to understand the advantages and limitations of any theoretical understanding they acquire in a classroom.

The alleged inability of the state system to deliver such people into businesses has caused politicians to run about and make numerical promises that are not only unconnected with the actual needs, but so difficult to deliver they have to bend the measures of success to ensure they deliver on their promises. There are institutions within the UK, and around the world that blend understanding of subject with its application, but imparting practical skills requires assets more expensive and specific than lecture theatres, and so this form of education appears to be under threat. Some institutions work with business to ensure those who are learning get to experience how their new skills are used in industry, I must declare an interest here in that my PhD was a Co-operative Award in Science and Engineering (CASE) and so I spent my summers working in real chemical laboratories. But this is not the norm, and the pressures on some of the universities I know moderately well tend to push in the opposite direction. All forms of business make this point to government in the vain hope it will make a difference, but the fact that this 10 year old report was not really implemented tells you all you need to know about the response!

Also in the Leitch report is another need that gets less attention, but is as pressing in the modern world. It points out that the days of a “job for life” are long gone and most people will not only change companies, but probably change focus of their career several times (I think, I understand they use the figure of six changes as an average in the UK). The rate of technological change, particularly in the digital area, mean that to progress in any career, the acquisition of skills becomes a task that lasts throughout life, and is no longer limited to its early stages. The model where we leave school or university and stop adding to our skills is very definitely broken. This puts an added responsibility on those parts of the educational system that deal with the later stages of education to find a way to train people who are already in jobs. In turn, that means companies have to recognise the need for this extra training and support employees with the time and money to acquire new skills – because they will make them more productive in their future roles.

The current rhetoric about skills and productivity is not new, but there are places where the needs of the people who make up the workforce are recognised and addressed. One of the reasons I (now) work at WMG is that it covers all these needs. It was a pioneer of working directly with businesses, both to develop new ideas to address commercial challenges, but also turn out the people who can implement them. It provides modular training to enable those in work to continuously add to their skills. And it has now moved upstream to enable those in secondary education acquire the marriage of practical and theoretical skills the modern world demands. Until this sort of pioneering work is recognised and rolled out, we will probably have to get used to reading more reports of the need to increase the skills of our workforce as we watch out GDP fall down the international league tables.



David Bott is Principal Fellow at WMG. After 26 years with BP, Courtaulds and ICI, spent in both their corporate centres and business units, David began a love affair with start-ups 10 years ago. He was diverted into spending 7 years setting up and directing the Technology Strategy Board (now rebranded as Innovate UK), the UK's innovation agency.

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