The March Budget raised more than a few eyebrows, but also produced many sighs of relief at the sound of more investment in young people’s education 

More investment in technical education for 16 to 19 year olds was announced in this year’s Spring Budget. Investment is set to rise to over £500 million in the form of new T-levels, which will be introduced from autumn 2019. Students will be able to choose from 15 different routes (rather than the current 13,000 as Mr Hammond points out), such as construction, digital or agriculture.

The number of hours of training for these students will increase by over 50% and as part of the course, all students will take part in a 3 month industry work placement, “so when they qualify, they are genuinely ‘work-ready'”, says Hammond. The government will also provide maintenance loans for students doing higher-level technical courses at National Colleges and Institutes of Technology – like those available to university students.

In his Budget speech, Philip Hammond said, with this plan we will be: “Putting the next generation first, to safeguard their future, and to secure our economy.”

Chris Moore, President, Group Operations, The Adecco Group UK & Ireland, also explained the potential future dangers: “Our research of UK businesses, carried out in partnership with the CIPD, shows that the current British education system is ineffective at providing youngsters with key business skills such as communication and teamwork.”

So this announcement was more than overdue, currently with an estimated workforce shortfall in the UK of 3.1m people by 2050 due to a combination of skills shortages, an ageing workforce and restrictive migration policy. We got in touch with business people across all industries, including those in the education sector, to get their thoughts.

Owen Goodhead, MD of Randstad Construction, Property & Engineering was pleased at the recognition of the productivity gap, which is ‘fast becoming a chasm’. He said: “This allocation of funds is not just about future-proofing our workforce, it’s about reversing the effects of years of putting academia over and above technical vocations and practical trades.

“Today’s jobs market is candidate driven because of an already crippling skills shortage in some industries, putting more pressure on companies to find, attract and retain talent. The housing crisis, for example, is also a STEM skills crisis.”

Tim Sorensen, Eastbourne EBP agreed, commenting: “The proposed ‘T-Levels’ will provide a much needed vocational learning opportunity that was lost following the withdrawal of Young Apprenticeships and  the subsequently flawed Diplomas.”

However, all praise in politics has its critics. Tim points out: “For these new qualifications to have any real currency in terms of required employability and skills it is imperative that they are not developed in an academic bubble and must engage with the needs of business in the various sectors. Arrangements for the crucial ‘work experience’ element will require careful management and liaison with employers to ensure sufficient quantity and quality. This is something that education business partnerships, such as Eastbourne EBP, are well placed to support.”

Peter Vinden, Managing Director of The Vinden Partnership also sees both sides of the coin, explaining that, although a positive step, these are only short term measures: “The industry is unlikely to see any benefit from this until at least 2020, and with a potential exodus of skilled workers as a result of Brexit, we need to make sure we have enough home grown workers to fill the void.”

Chris Wood, CEO of specialist training provider Develop Training Limited (DTL), is equally sceptical over the longevity of this plan:

“The Chancellor’s initiatives in the areas of training and development are to be welcomed but their eventual effect on the UK economy may however be trivial. Government can play a role in providing an appropriate landscape for training but long-term solutions to the UK’s oft-noted skills gap; the need to promote STEM subjects more greatly in schools and universities; and the attraction of more women into engineering and technical careers, can only be delivered effectively through the direct actions and influences of industry, not simply via edicts of the State.”

Chris Moore also highlighted how this is only the beginning, further expanding on the point that one solution doesn’t fit all: “Education and apprenticeships are just one part of the solution to solving the UK’s productivity issues and skills shortages. Those already in jobs will face new challenges as their roles, and the skills demanded of them, rapidly evolve.”

He suggests: “Organisations need to play a part and think strategically about the skills their workforce requires today, tomorrow and in the future and to engage and develop their employees accordingly. Alongside this new investment in vocational and technical education and apprenticeships for young people, this additional focus on the current workforce will help ensure the UK is ready to thrive in a post-Brexit environment.”

Many that we spoke to recognised that the current education system simply wasn’t enough to equip young people for the workplace. Mr Hammond’s announcement is a first step that needs to be taken to realising young people’s potential. “It’s also time to recognise that academia alone is not enough to produce the diverse, highly skilled workforce of the future,” says Michael Mercieca, Chief Executive of Young Enterprise. “We need to foster a culture of entrepreneurialism in schools, invest in employability skills and give young people the tools and confidence they need to reach their full potential.”

Julian Wragg, VP International at Pluralsight agreed stating: “Long gone are the days where a degree or school qualification is all you need to succeed. Julian concluded: “Only by embracing lifelong learning, especially in technical and digital skills, will it be possible to create a workforce that has the job security and relevant expertise for our digital economy.