Chief economist briefs Chamber

Mark Spilsbury
Mark Spilsbury

Cornwall’s business leaders heard this week how urgent action needs to be taken by Government and employers if the UK is to enjoy the same prosperity after the recession as it did before.

Members of Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and Industry were given a personal briefing on the challenges ahead for employers and the economy by Mark Spilsbury, chief economist for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which was established last year to advise and challenge UK governments on the policies and strategies needed to boost skills, jobs and productivity.

At two key meetings he presented the findings of the Commission’s first Ambition 2020: World Class Skills and Jobs report which charts the UK’s progress on employment and skills, the challenges the country faces and the action the Commission believes the UK governments need to take.

Spilsbury explained: “When we started, the UK ranked 10th and 11th among the key developed nations for employment and productivity. We set targets for the UK to be in the top 8 countries in the world by 2020, with a drive to improve skill levels across the workforce.”

However, despite impressive improvements in the levels of qualifications, recent figures show that the UK is actually falling further behind other nations. “The trouble is that other countries are following a similar strategy and they are doing even better than we are,” he explained.

The UK Commission consults widely with employers and other stakeholders in its programme of work which also includes drawing up recommendations to radically simplify the complex and bureaucratic employment and skills systems

Richard Glover, chief executive of the Cornwall Chamber said: “When it comes to education and training we hear that there are too many schemes, with too much administration and too great a focus on particular types of qualification.”

The Commission’s report highlights a mismatch between the level of qualification and the number of jobs available for those leaving college or university. It says too few adults possess the skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s labour market, or the motivation, confidence and opportunity to gain them; and there is also a growing sense that many people are over-qualified for the role they fulfil.

Relative to other industrialised nations, we have too few businesses in high skill, high value added industries, too few high performance workplaces and are creating too few high skilled jobs. Comparative to our ambition, we simply don’t have enough employer demand for skills.

Glover said research by the Cornwall Chamber shows that “there is a gap between education policy and what is actually needed to grow a business. Too often Government initiatives focus on qualifications to the exclusion of the real work skills required. Whilst the skills needed might be very high-level, they do not easily relate to recognised qualifications.”

Introducing a discussion on the Ambition 2020 report Tom Flanagan, Cornwall Council’s corporate director of environment, planning and economy, said the report was timely and relevant for Cornwall: “There is significant investment going on in Cornwall at the moment and it is clear to me that the ambitions for skills and regeneration do not link as closely as they should. This is an opportunity to participate in a national discussion but it also offers us some important indicators for how Cornwall must progress”.

In response to questions, Spilsbury explained that “simplification” was not shorthand for a change to ambitions for a more highly-skilled workforce “We need to maintain focus on improving skills,” he explained, “but we also need to align those skills to actual jobs. This will mean simplifying the investments we make as a country. But some employers will also have to realise that aspirations must rise if we are to maintain our economy and our society. A 1% change in the figures here amounts to £10 billion a year.”