John Evans: Why we need to reclaim 'skills' for the common good

John Evans, doctoral researcher in Labour Market Policy at Strathclyde University, looks at the Scottish Government’s new Labour Market Strategy, and argues that its vaccuity belies the seriousness of having a proper debate about what ‘skills’ means in current political discourse and how it needs to change

THE Scottish Government released their new Labour Market Strategy last month. The 43-page document brings together a range of economic and social policies aimed at a fairer, more inclusive economy.

Minister for Employability and Training Jamie Hepburn reiterated the Government's commitment to 'a more inclusive approach to our economy', prioritising fairness and workplace equality.

In reality, the strategy offers little to those craving more concrete directives or detailed funding imperatives as to how the Government will create a labour market that ‘drives inclusive, sustainable economic growth’.

Indeed, such phrase-mongering is an example of increasingly hollow rhetorical flourishes. Many will justifiably cite the importance of promoting terminology like inclusivity, cohesion, and sustainability, but the lack of substance behind it is equally frustrating.

This superficiality is reflected in the debate around ‘skills’ in the labour market.

In public discourse, ‘skills’ have increasingly become the realm of economic and political ideology. In linking skills development to employment levels, numerous initiatives have been used as sticks with which to bat away criticisms of impotence in reaching those furthest from the labour market.

“As this narrative of ‘upskilling = employment’ was being crafted, the social and individual value of skills development as a means for lifelong learning, individual betterment and social mobility slid down the policy agenda and bounced between cabinet portfolios.”

Evidence tells us that skills development is neither the most efficient nor the most effective way of increasing employment levels. Indeed, experts have never claimed that upskilling the workforce has anything more than ‘limited’ impact on generating employment.

As this narrative of ‘upskilling = employment’ was being crafted, the social and individual value of skills development as a means for lifelong learning, individual betterment and social mobility slid down the policy agenda and bounced between cabinet portfolios.

This economic commodification of skills has gone unchallenged in public debates for too long.

By incentivising employer buy-in to the Modern Apprenticeship (MA) programme, the Scottish Government risks sabotaging their ambitions for labour market cohesion. By focusing too heavily on answering the question ‘what do employers need?’, they are creating an imbalance in skills provision that tips too far in the direction of employer demand.

The problem with a form of social democracy that subordinates itself to private sector priorities is that Government risks losing their grip on the regulation that allows them to respond to collective economic and social needs via skills provision.

“The problem with a form of social democracy that subordinates itself to private sector priorities is that Government risks losing their grip on the regulation that allows them to respond to collective economic and social needs via skills provision.”

Employers are undoubtedly central to any apprenticeship system, but this gradual shift in policy priorities, along with the dearth of debate surrounding the issue is worrying. Not enough consideration is given, in either rhetoric or policy, to what individuals want from their training and subsequent employment.

The Oxfam humankind index has had a welcome influence in shifting public debate about what ‘good’ work entails. The Scottish Government have made significant effort to promote the ‘fair work’ agenda over the last eighteen months or so, and continue to do so with an additional £500,000 provided to assist the work of the Fair Work Convention. Why then do these debates on well-being, fulfilment and dignity in work cease when we talk about apprenticeships?

The complexity of the skills landscape means there will likely always be trade-offs in securing the continued commitment of stakeholders. This does not mean the cheap labour offered by apprentices can be taken for granted. All human beings have the right to be regarded as such, treated as individuals with their own demands and ambitions - not as commodities fulfilling demand.

This must be reflected not just in policy, but also in discourse. As well as those of us in civic society, the Government have an obligation to contribute to rebalancing debates around skills development and its impact on the labour market.

By seeking to reclaim ‘skills’ as something that belongs to us all, we can provide a platform through which individuals can become better informed about industrial democracy and their employment rights. By promoting the social and personal values of skills, we can empower people to consciously engage in their own development to the benefit of potential employers and the economy.