Skills and Employment

April 19th, 2012

My home city, Birmingham, has recently embarked on a voyage of reflection to see how it can promote greater social inclusion. I don’t really want to comment on the process, I get a bit lost about how these things are supposed to translate into practical action. You can read about it on the Fair Brum site and come to your own conclusions.

One aspect of this that has caught my interest is a debate on what qualities (I can’t think of a better word than qualities and it isn’t quite right) are needed by employers. This is linked to a previous blog post that was on the Podnosh site about skills in Birmingham. I read this when it went up in January and was tempted to comment but the moment went and I just forgot about it. The latest post on the Fair Brum site has reminded me that I had something to say. I think it is worth mentioning that this isn’t really related to Birmingham as such, many of the issues are replicated in other cities.

I’m in danger of over simplifying the claim set out in both posts but it seems to be that economic improvement, and specifically the needs of employers, are addressed not through qualifications and skills but through communication and networks.

I would not discount the vital role of people having communication skills nor the ability to facilitate movement of labour via networks but in the overall scheme of things these are useful but not essential.

Over the last 20 years the thing that has become abundantly clear, in economic terms, is that investment in skills is the only factor that has a tangible effect on growth. The Chinese economy being the prime example of a revolutionary change from a low wage, low skill economy to a highly technical, highly skilled economy. Albeit one with relatively low wages. We can see from the German economy that investment in skills has allowed a seemingly unique area of economic prosperity that is contrary to the rest of Europe.

Simplistically this is because both countries have a lot of people that know how to do things that we don’t.

The original posts are fairly dismissive of qualifications, I think based on a misunderstanding of what a qualification is supposed to represent. Qualifications are a good method of conveying an aptitude to learn, in many cases the individual subject matter is a secondary benefit to knowing that someone can learn. The ability to learn and the tools that support learning are really the skills that employers should treasuring above all. Education is the process of learning to learn not acquiring knowledge.

Qualification are also a proxy indicator of ability. Whilst I appreciate that there is merit in to know individuals and valuing their enthusiasm this is not something that can be replicated at scale. For our economy to begin to thrive we need a sea change in our economic activity but also the scale we are doing it at. With the best will in the world the model of networks outlined is not going to be capable achieving large scale recruitment and ensuring there is consistency.

A system of qualifications that employers have faith in is the very least we need to support a minimum standard of recruitment.

The original posts are also fairly dismissive of skills, I think this is the part that I most take issue with. The original posts assume a level of skill transference which doesn’t seem credible. Whilst it is possible that in some jobs it is fairly easy for an employer to confer skills onto a new employee this is surely a minority.

The Fair Brum post makes the rather surreal claim:-

“There are of course career paths that require the “rubber stamp” of education and training; lawyers, doctors etc. But what about the rest of the workforce? Is further education really THAT relevant?”

The notion that doctors achieve skill through the “rubber stamp” of  education is bizarre. Doctors achieve skill through ridiculous amounts of structured training, not the least of which is years of monitored employment.

Would we also say that engineers are merely rubber stamped as well? If you are starting to build a plane do you start your recruitment based on someone who seems quite cheerful and assume they will pick it up as they go along? Well, you can do, but I’m not getting on your plane.

That might seem like a glib example but the reality is that skills are what add value to a product and are the barrier to anyone just replicating what you do because they just fancy it.

This is also not an efficient way for industry to act. We are not going to achieve economic development if it is always beholden on employers to equip their staff with the skills they need to do their jobs.

I can see that in some sections of industry the focus on soft skills are relevant but these are a minority. Focussing on communication and networks does a gross disservice to the young people  that are currently suffering from decades of disinvestment in skills and short termism.

This concerns me for two reasons. Firstly networks, as they exist in Birmingham can be exclusive, whilst they might circulate jobs amongst a connected elite they can exclude those sections of society that are the more vulnerable to poverty and worklessness.  This is a compelling argument to improve networks but first we must harness the potential we have in our population. An example, that might be peculiar to Birmingham, is the vast array of skills and life experience (practical and qualifications) that exist in our immigrant community. For example many refugees are the most qualified people of the countries that they are trying to escape, they are not plugged into our social networks and do not have the same access to employment.

Secondly I believe the notion that skills are easily transferred from one person to another, seemingly by osmosis, buys into the something for nothing society so loved by New Labour in the 90s. We need to produce things with worth and the transient nature of an ephemeral service sector does not do this. These are the ideals that created the financial apocalypse and the X Factor.

Sorry, I had to come back and edit this so it ended on a bombastic and ridiculous note.


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