Karl Hick, chief executive of The Larkfleet Group of Companies, has commented on a National Audit Office report on the government’s education and training strategy in an article on the LinkedIn social networking site.
His article says:
Government efforts to improve the quality and take-up of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills have yielded some positive results, according to a report from the National Audit Office. The report draws on evidence from a number of organisations - including Larkfleet, which gets a specific acknowledgement in the document.
Despite the positive results, the report concludes that there is still an urgent need for departments to set out a shared view of what they are trying to achieve. There also needs to be a co-ordinated plan for achieving it before government can demonstrate value for money.
This conclusion broadly reflects the evidence that Larkfleet gave. We are hugely concerned that there is not enough attention being paid to educating the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians.
While a civilised society has a need for artists, geographers, historians and a wide range of ‘humanities and arts’ topics, it is the people who make and build things that provide the income which supports them. We and other manufacturing and construction companies are struggling to recruit the people we need. The education system needs to focus on providing them – particularly if, as appears to be the case, we are not going to be able to recruit from overseas following Brexit.
The concern about Brexit is not restricted to Larkfleet. The National Audit Office (NAO) report says that some major science and engineering bodies also believe that exit from the European Union could reduce the availability of STEM skills in the short term. And a report commissioned last year by the Mayor of London predicts that a ‘hard Brexit’ could lead to the loss of up to 43,000 construction workers across the UK.
It is not just an issue for Larkfleet and similar companies. It is a national problem. The NAO report points out that there has been growing concern, including from the government, about how to achieve higher productivity and economic growth in an era of rapid technological change. Over time, this has generated the widely held belief that one of the UK’s key economic problems is a shortage of STEM skills in the workforce.
The NAO says that there is a STEM skills mismatch rather than a simple shortage. A mismatch can include many types of misalignment between the skills needed and those available in the labour pool.
For example, the NAO’s research indicates that there are particular shortages of STEM skills at technician level (a view which we would certainly endorse). However, there is an oversupply in other areas, such as biological science graduates, who are then often underemployed in an economy in which they are not in high demand.
The NAO says that a historic lack of coordination across government means that the overall approach is not cohesive, and that individual initiatives intended to boost STEM skills do not add up to a coherent programme of intervention.
So, for example, the Chancellor announced in his November Budget additional support for maths and computing teaching, more apprenticeships and a national retraining scheme initially focused on the construction sector. But was this part of a joined-up approach across government or are these isolated initiatives? It is difficult to judge.
Whatever is done will take a long time to bring results. Changing the education system and creating a new generation of talented and trained construction professionals will not happen overnight.
The government needs to ‘get a grip on this’ and develop, and then implement, a co-ordinated education and training strategy. And given the long-term nature of the need, it should be done on a cross-party basis so that policies continue despite election results and possible changes of government.
Larkfleet would urge the government to take note of the NAO report – and to take action.
The full NAO report – and summaries – can be found here.