One way of getting a job is to work for someone who will employ you on the basis that you look as if you can do the job. This could come from a demonstration (eg repairing a bike for a bike repairer) or from a personal recommendation. These are also ways of making a living through self employment. Some people are successful in this way. Large swathes of the British economy still exist on this informal basis. It is also a way for immigrants, both legal and illegal, to get a foothold in the British labour market. However, most people need a formal qualification as well as successful work experience to be able to compete in the labour market let alone get a job. Why?
Having a qualification is a signal to employers that you have achieved something. For example, you have enough application to pass an exam or test; you can read, write and count; you can lay a line of bricks. Having achieved something says something about you: that you may be reliable, punctual and obedient and maybe have a minimum amount of common sense. But a vocational qualification such as an apprenticeship certificate can also mean that you are competent in an occupation that requires some knowledge and skill. This is not only a guarantee to a prospective employer that you can do the job, but is also a signal to society that you can do it without endangering your own and others’ lives and limbs. Qualifications are important in a regulated economy that protects the public from the worst excesses of ‘wild west’ capitalism. In an economy dependent on high quality work, rigorous qualifications provide a guarantee of a capable workforce.
Many young people dislike studying for academic qualifications that they do not find interesting or do not think provide them with any job prospects. It has been noticed for years that white working class young people see education as a route into adult life with less enthusiasm than working class young people from other ethnic groups. This is partly a hangover from the time when their grandfathers could work in a factory, mine, shop or railway without any formal qualifications and when who you knew and where you were brought up were more important than education in fitting you with the know-how and attitudes suitable for the workplace. But those times and those jobs are now largely gone, except for the kinds of informal jobs such as delivering and casual retail and catering work mentioned above. These can be useful for gaining work experience but will not usually properly support an adult let alone a family. Furthermore, a capitalist society likes to have a ‘surplus army of the unemployed’ in order to maintain dominance over the working class. British businesses do not particularly like to train employees, preferring them to turn up ready to work with a minimum of expense for employers. The lower your level of education the less likely you are to receive any kind of workplace training as employers think that there will be little value to them in giving it.
We’ve seen how vocational qualifications can benefit society. But they can also benefit workers. The general tendency of employers is to pay for training that is of immediate use to them, but preferably to employ workers who have already been trained. They are not interested in the general employability of the workers they take on. If anything, they would prefer to make it more difficult for them to leave to work for a rival. In a labour market full of people desperate to work, this is a tempting strategy. But if a worker has a nationally recognised qualification and some decent experience in the occupation, this is a powerful signal to a whole range of employers that this worker can do the job competently. Furthermore, if most of the workers in that occupation are also qualified, then an employer can be reasonably confident that he can replace a qualified worker who leaves. It is better still for the employee if his or her vocational qualification is broadly based so that s/he can take on similar jobs with different employers or can adapt to the needs of a new process or technique within the occupation. Germany operates with a labour market along these lines where the majority of the population have recognised and broadly-based qualifications. Britain does not, except in some specialist and professional areas.
There are therefore good reasons for getting a vocational qualification in an area where prospects for skilled employment are good. But in order to do this, young people need to have some achievements to show for their period of compulsory schooling. In particular, they need to have reached a certain level in Maths and English and currently 40% don’t achieve the requisite level of Maths and English considered necessary for progression to a qualification for a technical as opposed to a semi-skilled or craft job requiring a level 2 qualification. Although most of these make up for it by achieving a level 2 vocational qualification, three fifths fail to achieve a level 3 qualification, very roughly equivalent to a few A levels.This means that 10% of young people fail to gain a significant vocational qualification. Their long term prospects for earnings and other indicators of well-being are not good. Even the achievement of level 2 predicts a tougher future than for those with higher qualifications. For this group the economic inactivity rate for 25-64 year olds is nearly 17%, rising to nearly 45% for those with no qualifications.
This means that some young people will go on to achieve an appropriate level of Maths and English as part of their vocational qualifications, but the number is still very low. There is some evidence that young people with modest educational achievements will work harder if they are persuaded that work at school or college will lead to a decent job. This is particularly the case where the English and Maths is taught as an integral part of the vocational qualification itself, using examples derived from the occupation for which they are preparing. For these young people, GCSE Maths and English do not always work.
This brings us to a point that we have visited more than once in this series. Several things need to happen for youth unemployment to be effectively tackled. In this case, more young people will study to get qualifications if there are likely to be decent jobs requiring qualifications in their locality and there are the apprenticeships and college places available for them to do so. Good private sector employers providing good jobs will come to these localities if the right workforce and facilities are available. There is really little alternative to the government and local authorities creating the right conditions by tempting businesses or supporting local ones and helping firms to take on apprentices in the ways described in the previous article.
Britain will not stop being a low skill economy overnight. If there is ever to be a transition to a high skill economy employing the majority of workers with level 3 and above qualifications that will take time. At the moment the government is pinning a lot of its hopes on the T level, an A level equivalent study in different economic sectors which requires in some cases quite high levels of Maths and English. But T levels will be academic qualifications in a vocational subject, not direct passports to employment. They are unlikely to appeal to the majority of young people who are struggling to obtain GCSE Maths and English. It is arguable that the needs of young people would be better served by a more extensive and properly supported apprenticeship system that would result in a widely recognised and respected qualification. At the moment we are very far from this. Labour needs to show how a high quality mass system of apprenticeship can be developed with government support for smaller firms and the local FE colleges that can support them.
We also need to be realistic. England will not become a high-skill economy overnight or even after a prolonged period. Unlike Germany where level 3 and 4 qualifications are the norm for skilled workers and where most people have them and there are the jobs available that require those qualifications, England needs to ensure that more young people reach a minimum level 2 standard so that they can do jobs (for example in construction) that are currently done by migrants. Brexit is an opportunity for the government to put pressure on employers to end their ‘free lunch’ of skilled employees from abroad and to start taking their responsibilities for vocational education and bringing on the next generation seriously. If Labour had any sense, this message would be ringing out loud and clear along the ‘Red Wall’ and beyond.