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The British workforce needs skills to compete, not a race to the bottom

30 April 2013

2:20 PM

30 April 2013

2:20 PM

When J.B. Priestley visited Stoke-on-Trent on his 1934 ‘English Journey,’ he tried his hand throwing a vase at the Wedgwood factory in Etruria. It is fair to say, he lacked the skills.

After a lot of jokes about ‘jollying’ and ‘jiggering’ and watching his vase flop back into clay, Priestley praised the craftsmen ‘doing something that they can do better than anybody else, and they know it … Here is the supreme triumph of man’s creative thumb.’

Well, times have changed, but the way in which opinion formers think about skills has failed to move on much from Priestley. Of course, craft and artisanal skills remain essential to industries like the potteries, but the broader British workforce deserves a modern skills settlement.

To prove the point, this week a global survey by PriceWaterhouseCoopers of over 1,300 CEOs revealed that UK business leaders are more concerned about the availability of key skills than any of their Western European counterparts, rating it as the greatest threat to their business’ growth. Three out of four UK CEOs said creating and encouraging a skilled workforce should be the Government’s highest priority for business for the year ahead.

So, this week’s Spectator Skills Conference could not have come at a better moment. With guest appearances by Lord Baker and Matthew Hancock (as much George Osborne’s sorcerer’s apprentice as apprenticeships minister), it looks like an excellent programme.

And the question on every delegate’s mind must surely be, how has the government got it so spectacularly wrong on skills and training? Because whilst the analysis might be right – Britain needs to equip itself in the global race for economic growth – the Conservative solution is for a low-skill, low-wage strategy which has put our intermediate technical skills at 21st place among OECD countries.

Since coming to power, the government has devalued apprenticeships, undermined careers’ guidance in schools, abandoned work experience, and downgraded successful subjects like the engineering diploma.

And when Ed Miliband came up with plans for a gold standard Technical Baccalaureate vocational qualification, the government dismissed it for ‘continuing to leave millions of state school pupils unemployable’.

Well, last week the government was forced to announce its own Tech Bacc – a welcome development, albeit lacking the rigour of Labour’s plans with its commitment to business accreditation and workplace experience. But perhaps they have finally realised that the race-to-the-bottom model of economic growth will not deliver the rising living standards we need to see.

For what British businesses rightly wants is not an over-obsession on school structures, but a strategy to address the long tail of poor skills, the million unemployed young people and the state of vocational education.

In Stoke as elsewhere, we still have the craftsmanship but we often lack the skills.  That is what Labour is focused on solving and the Spectator needs to address this Thursday.

Tristram Hunt is a Labour shadow education minister. Sign up here for the Spectator’s Skills Conference.

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