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Paul Geddes



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Tory leadership contest risks disrupting the UK’s skills and levelling up ambitions

As we begin a summer-long Conservative leadership contest, it’s essential for the government to continue focusing on the levelling up agenda.

To say it’s been an interesting time for UK politics recently would be an understatement. Last week, a succession of resignations from cabinet members played out like a television drama. Unlike TV though, this drama has real-world impact on people and businesses across the UK. In fact, it is at times of great political turbulence that the most disadvantaged members of society are often further marginalised. In the wake of Boris Johnson’s resignation, there is a very real fear that the disruption could significantly impact the levelling up and skills agendas.  

For HR leaders, the desire to bring the right talent in to meet business objectives also feels more acute. The UK currently faces a potentially devastating digital skills gap, with employers stating that only 48% of people leaving full-time education have the advanced digital skills required to drive business growth.

From degree apprenticeships to reskilling, retaining and upskilling, there are solutions to this problem that we cannot lose sight of. Coupled with this is the real need to level up the country, especially as we face a cost-of-living crisis and the threat of a potential recession remains a genuine concern. While members of the Conservative party vie to become the next Prime Minister, it is vital that the government sees skills and levelling up as crucially interlinked for the benefit of individuals, business and the economy as a whole.  

We can expect to see a significant dip in nation-wide productivity if we take our foot off the pedal while we wait for a new Prime Minister to get their agenda up and running.

The need to accelerate social mobility 

The levelling up agenda looks to transform the UK by boosting opportunities in all corners of society and addressing the imbalance caused by economic disparities. It is important work that goes hand-in-hand with proper skills training.  

In my line of work, I have seen how this can directly improve the lives of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The hangover from previous generations, which maintains that a traditional university degree is the only route to a well-paid career, has long excluded those who cannot afford the fees.

The truth is that there are plenty of opportunities on offer to help school leavers reach a high-earning job, such as digital skills bootcamps and apprenticeships all the way up to master’s degree level. Alongside this, reskilling courses for those already in their careers can open doors to valuable skills otherwise not accessible to people, and deliver the skills businesses truly need. These not only eliminate the debt associated with higher education but can also offer ‘earn while you learn’ opportunities that provide regular income alongside practical learning.   

However, it is only through government investment and prioritisation that we can increase visibility and uptake for these programmes. As competing cabinet ministers continue to make pledges to encourage their voters, I hope that levelling up remains at the heart of their campaign strategies. Without action, we face the potential stagnation of social mobility, with those leaving education or looking to reskill losing financially viable options to kickstart their bright futures. 

Providing access to earning opportunities, such as degree apprenticeships, has another added benefit that is crucial to HR leaders; it also widens the talent pool available to businesses. As we emerge from the pandemic, amid a glaring digital skills deficit, companies are crying out for a diverse range of talent and backgrounds to help propel their businesses forward. Diverse talent is needed now more than ever, as HR leaders figure out how to fill empty job roles. A variety of talent can help bring untapped perspectives and completely new ways of thinking.   

Closing the digital skills gap 

Coupled with this, more and more, businesses are finding that they are unable to access the talent that is necessary to drive company growth – especially talent in the digital and technology sector. Indeed, tech job vacancies in the UK have risen 56% over the last two years alone, according to Lightcast. It’s clear that the digital transformation accelerated during Covid-19 has not been reflected by an increase in digital skills, and as such, we need to facilitate a stronger correlation to keep up with the dramatic tech advancements that are being made every day.  

As we look to bounce back from Covid-19 and invest in the now-fundamental digital element of UK PLC, it would be a huge setback to delay the efforts to close this skills gap. It is estimated that half the workforce (15 million people) currently lack the digital skills needed by employers, and without action, this will rise to two thirds.  

By viewing the skills and levelling up agendas as inextricably linked, the new government can place both at the centre of its political agenda and maintain positive momentum

From these projections, we can expect to see a significant dip in nation-wide productivity if we take our foot off the pedal while we wait for a new Prime Minister to get their agenda up and running. Leaders should also consider how this will impact our international reputation, and how by upholding the skills agenda they can maintain global competitiveness and establish the UK as a true digital powerhouse. Without urgent action on skills, those in the HR profession will only see vacancies continue to grow alongside the gap of work preparedness.   

 Acquiring employees with the correct skillset is a difficult task in any economy. But in the current climate of rapid digital transformation, and a rapidly advancing cost-of-living crisis, there is far more at risk. Apprenticeships and courses focused on reskilling and upskilling hold the key to tailored learning. They also open the door to a healthy pipeline of trained, highly skilled employees. 

Linking the agendas  

In this post-resignation limbo that we find ourselves in, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a leadership race. But the immediate future seems very uncertain. Alongside a potential recession and the surge in cost-of-living, we need stability now more than ever.

By viewing the skills and levelling up agendas as inextricably linked, the new government can place both at the centre of its political agenda and maintain positive momentum. With this strategy in mind, I believe we can drive real change and simultaneously enhance the state of the UK economy and society. 

Interested in this topic? Read ‘What can businesses learn from the Tory leadership race?

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