Category Archives: Blog

Brexit – Are we “out” or “not in”?

By Michael Oberreuter, Senior Research Executive

 

The Brexit Deal

On 15 November 2018, the negotiators of the UK and the EU agreed a Brexit deal or Draft Withdrawal Agreement. In a nutshell, a transition period until December 2020 has been agreed, to be followed by another agreement which is slated to set out what is commonly referred to as the “future relationship” between the UK and the EU. For this, and for pre-existing spending commitments, the UK will be billed £39bn. The European Council (i.e. the 27 remaining EU Member States) passed the agreement within 30 minutes on 25 November 2018.

Are we out or not in?

So far, so simple? The large controversy now engulfing the political landscape of the UK of course suggests otherwise. Indeed, in contrast to David Dimbleby’s “We’re out”, the more accurate description of the situation is “We’re not in”. Let’s first turn to Theresa May’s points on what the deal delivers to respect and implement the Brexit vote of 2016.

Immigration will no longer be free for EU citizens and the UK will no longer be part of the EU agriculture and fisheries policies. Assuming no extension of the transition period (which is currently not on the table), payments to the EU will cease by 2020 and the UK will be able to agree its own trade deals. This comes at the price of a “backstop” for Northern Ireland, but no-one would like to see it implemented. Also, the European Court of Justice would no longer have jurisdiction over the UK[1]. A UK-EU Joint Committee will provide a forum for discussion and dispute resolution[2].

Brexit sorted? It is and it isn’t, depending on who you talk to. Therefore, a closer look at the fine-print won’t hurt.

 

Backstop does not mean Backstop[3]

One of the many issues currently beleaguering the government, is what is now commonly referred to as the “double backstop”. This is a bit of a misnomer. First, the EU prefers “protocol”, but that is beside the point. Second, both arrangements work differently and would be applied under very different circumstances. Key to the matter and controversy is thus how these solutions would work in practice.

The original backstop, the “Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland”, would come into force, once the UK leaves the EU Single Market and Customs Union, which are the key to frictionless trade within the Union. If no mutually-agreed alternative is found, this will mean customs checks at the Northern Ireland/Eire border. To avoid this, the backstop says that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU Single Market and Custom Union, thereby erecting a customs border in the Irish Sea – as the rest of the UK would have left both. Both sides have, however, repeatedly declared that they would do their best to avoid this becoming a reality and indeed there could be solutions, such as no Brexit, re-joining the Single Market and Customs Union (i.e. no Brexit) or No Deal. The latter would mean a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland full stop – no backstop would be possible.

The other backstop is the “Single Customs Territory”, which has been bestowed with all kinds of descriptions, including “vassalage” or “trap”. Under this backstop, the UK and the EU will stay in the same customs territory except for agriculture and fisheries. If no “future relationship” agreement is reached by the end of 2020, to ensure continued frictionless trade, the UK will need to align its customs policy and commercial policy with the EU’s common commercial policy, the EU generalised system of preferences (GSP) and trade defence system. There is also a provision that the EU would consult the UK before taking any action. In addition, customs controls will apply to agricultural goods and fisheries[4].

How this would work in practice is difficult to predict. As a positive, all other goods from the UK would have access to the EU Single Market and Customs Union without checks. Technically speaking, the common commercial policy gives the EU the mandate to negotiate trade agreements. This gives the EU the right to lower tariffs, etc. with its trade partners[5]. This would mean that the UK would have to follow suit, but the extent to which the UK would be consulted or would have influence on the negotiations through the Joint Committee is not clear.

Nevertheless, the UK would be significantly restrained in concluding its own trade agreements. The single customs territory would guarantee that “Under no circumstances can the UK apply a lower customs tariff to its customs territory than the EU Common Customs Tariff for any good imported from any third country or apply different rules of origin”[6]. In plain English, this means that the UK would not be able to offer potential trade partners any concessions going beyond what the EU has agreed with or applies to the same country, at least with regard to tariffs.

The single customs territory provision is designed to be temporary, but can only be replaced if both sides agree on a different arrangement. The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland has to be borne in mind as well, which would come into effect if both sides agreed to replace the single customs territory with an arrangement that would not provide a viable alternative for a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In addition, the Draft Withdrawal Agreement provides for the creation of a level playing field, which guarantees that the UK will not be able to undercut or take a significantly different direction from the EU guidelines and regulations regarding social protection, environment, taxation, competition and state aid[7]. In short, the UK will be restrained in making its own laws on these issues.

In addition to the backstops, the Brexit deal’s transition period foresees the UK still being bound by EU regulations, including any new regulations until the end of 2020. The UK could, however, request an extension of the transition period by 1 July 2020 at the latest, following which UK contributions to the EU budget would have to be determined[8].

Game, Set and Match for EU?

It is clear that the Draft Withdrawal Agreement’s provisions effectively lead to either Single Customs Territory or equivalent or an even closer relationship to EU, including re-joining the EU as the only viable options. If the UK parliament ratifies the agreement, a No Deal scenario after the transition period will become technically impossible, as the single customs territory backstop will apply. Secondly, ideas of a Canada-style deal will have to be shelved as any relationship outside the mechanics of the Single Customs Territory or anything similar would lead to the enforcement of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

 

Would the UK be ready for No Deal?

By contrast, crashing out of the EU on 29 March 2019 may be preferable for some politicians, but would cause significant disruptions for both sides[9]. In short, the UK is not ready for such a scenario, as the National Audit Office Report “The UK border: preparedness for EU exit” of 24 October 2018 has confirmed, stating that “Infrastructure identified by government departments cannot be built before March 2019” and “Businesses do not have enough time to make the changes that will be needed if the UK leaves the EU without a deal”[10].

Furthermore, the UK post-Brexit immigration system has not progressed past a Home Office statement of intent[11]. Similarly, the Agriculture Bill[12] and the Trade Bill[13] have not yet received royal assent. The Taxation (Cross border trade) Act of September 2018 gives a legal basis for a UK customs system[14], but HMRC is unlikely to have it in place by March 2019[15]. Not having any clarity or working solution in place by then would therefore be severely damaging and the situation could take a dynamic of its own. Even if the UK and the EU would do their best from January until March 2019 to mollify related impacts, implementation will be difficult. After all, as the EU Commission has stated, “Preparedness is primarily for private actors, business operators and professionals”[16]. It is therefore sound to conclude that a no deal scenario is less preferable than the deal of Mrs May or reverting Brexit. This leaves the option of another Brexit deal.

 

Another Deal?

Should any re-negotiation be possible at all, it is highly unlikely that the EU would significantly deviate from the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, unless any closer arrangement is sought, such as a permanent customs union or no Brexit. With the time left, further negotiations would mean extending UK membership beyond March 2019 and continued membership payments. It will also mean many protagonists on the EU side will change during the course of the negotiation, following the European Elections in 2019, in which the UK would have to participate under this scenario.

Therefore, if there is to be a Brexit in the envisaged time, then “not in” is the only present way to avoid damaging consequences and to preserve the mutually beneficial partnership between the EU and the UK. Or, as Margaret Thatcher would put it, “There is no alternative”, at least if you want to have Brexit on 29 March 2019 at 11pm.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-deal-theresa-may-speech-in-full-read-cabinet-approve-eu-draft-withdrawal-agreement-a8634266.html

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/draft_withdrawal_agreement_0.pdf, p.274ff

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/ireland/news/brexit-protocol-on-ireland-and-northern-ireland_en

[4] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-18-6423_en.htm

[5] https://institutdelors.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/RightsRoleofEPinCommonCommercialPolicy-Kreilinger-January18.pdf

[6] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-18-6423_en.htm

[7] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/draft_withdrawal_agreement_0.pdf, p.354ff

[8] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/draft_withdrawal_agreement_0.pdf, p.207ff

[9] http://www.cbi.org.uk/cbi-prod/assets/File/pdf/17%2009%2011%20No%20Deal%20write%20up_FINAL.pdf; https://www.handelsblatt.com/today/politics/compromise-dammit-reach-a-brexit-deal-or-face-disaster-german-business-warns/23583582.html?ticket=ST-14687233-HlyGlbgbpHfSfDbIDtm2-ap3

[10] https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-UK-border-preparedness-for-EU-exit.pdf

[11]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/718237/EU_Settlement_Scheme_SOI_June_2018.pdf; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/sajid-javid-immigration-plan-brexit-meaningful-vote-home-office-a8664456.html

[12] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/agriculture.html

[13] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/trade.html

[14] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/22/contents/enacted

[15] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/brexit-six-months-to-go-final-WEB.pdf

[16] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication-preparing-withdrawal-brexit-preparedness.pdf

What is the point of T levels? Who are they for and what will they achieve?

By Clare Vokes, Research Manager

Manufacturers, engineers and other employers have been concerned about a lack of valuable, sought after skills for years. They are crying out for work-ready young recruits with technical competence who can help them to grow their businesses. Enter T Levels. ‘Rigorous and credible’, the T Level is intended to be a ‘gold standard’ technical qualification of professional competence.

Warm welcome
In some quarters, T levels have been favourably received. Employers widely welcome the commitment to ‘real’ and quality work experience. They acknowledge that traditional examination-style assessment may not be the best way to assess technical expertise. They are also keen to achieve parity of esteem with the tried and tested academic route.

One of the drivers behind the T level initiative was the 2016 Sainsbury Report, which concluded that technical education – with its 13,000 qualifications – had become overly complicated. The introduction of T levels – running alongside apprenticeships – is an attempt to simplify the 16-18 landscape. Then again, mapping 15 occupational routes covering occupations as diverse as farrier, golf greenkeeper, milliner and production manager is not actually straightforward – a glance at the working document accompanying this process illustrates that point admirably!

Occupational competence
On the face of it, some occupations seem well suited to the T level model. Business administration, for example, works well in the classroom and students will obviously benefit from relevant work experience. Other learners, however, may choose to follow T levels which (even at this stage) the DfE acknowledge will not equip them with full occupational competence and they will need to follow up with an apprenticeship. Still others will not have a T level option – occupations such as adult care worker or forestry operative will be accessible only via the apprenticeship route.

Poor relation
It is this lack of consistency which highlights a major problem behind the T level. By proposing the T level as a third way between the traditional, academic route and an apprenticeship, there is an implied academisation of the T level. And yet, under the current proposals, it’s hard to avoid seeing T levels as the poor relation – or younger brother, at least – of the apprenticeship. Why would a young person choose a T level when he/she could get out there as an apprentice instead? The T level model looks remarkably similar to a Programme of Study – what is the difference, and how would that be explained to young people and parents? These are just a couple of the questions we have heard first-hand from employers and providers.

Challenges ahead
Apprenticeships themselves have had a lot to deal with in recent times. As a non-departmental public body sponsored by DfE, the Institute for Apprenticeships was launched just over a year ago. Since then the controversial apprenticeship levy was introduced and was quickly followed by a dramatic reduction in apprenticeship start numbers. The Institute’s chief executive, Sir Gerry Berragan, sounds like a man who means business. His short, sharp opening salvo ‘Faster and Better’, which was published soon after he joined in November sets his stall out brilliantly. Nevertheless, he has spent his first few months in office transforming the existing framework into a set of employer-led standards which will be fit for purpose. He is grim-faced about the challenges ahead and warns that, if it is to have chance to succeed, the new system needs the opportunity to ‘bed in’.

Tight deadlines
In the cold light of day, the decision to expand the Institute’s remit to include T levels makes sense. The theory is that the two technical options complement each other, and will share the same standards, but Sir Gerry is not entirely comfortable with this as it stands. He’s concerned about the timeline for T levels – the first three routes will be launched in 2020. He cautions that fudging their delivery will backfire drastically and rather than add to the prestige of technical education, they could damage it instead.

But this still leaves the fundamental questions of – why would a young person choose a T level over an apprenticeship? What is different about a T level from the current offer?

It is unfortunate then, that whilst the development process is well underway there is still an awful lot of uncertainty about how T levels fit in to technical education provision. Not only does the story need telling more clearly, it seems there are still characters to outline and the plot to finish off too.

Time to shake things up?

By Dr Tom Wilson, Research Executive

In the final blog of this series, we consider the education dilemma behind the digital revolution.

Many of us cherish fond memories of dodging flying chalk stubs at the back of the classroom, but sadly those days have been consigned to the history books. Blackboards were replaced by whiteboards and marker pens, only for those to be outmuscled, in their turn, by the interactive whiteboard. Learning styles have changed radically over the last century and it may be that we are now on the cusp of a complete educational paradigm shift.

Previously in this series, we touched on how the Government is implementing its Digital Strategy in the education sector, but flagged concerns about how teachers, tutors and training providers are themselves able to keep abreast of the rapid and constant technological change both inside and outside the classroom. While teachers may have the latest cutting-edge technology available, it is another thing entirely for them to be able to use it deeply and intuitively and get the most from both the technology and their students, such is the ferocity of digital change.

A more profound aspect of this situation could be the possibility that our whole approach to education is no longer fit for purpose. It is hard enough for digital specialists to keep up with change never mind educationalists with subjects to teach. For understandable reasons, technology has left the education sector struggling to know which way to go and how fast.

To meet this unprecedented challenge we need a radical shake-up of traditional teaching – in all subjects. Up to now, this revolutionary idea has only ever been discussed in whispers, so fantastic and challenging is the concept of a complete overhaul to the traditional education paradigm.

Acknowledging that a major overhaul to the education sector is necessary, particularly from secondary school upwards, is the first step towards change. It’s not just a case of re-training teachers, improving CPD, and changing some technology in the classroom. We need a revolution in the way we define and implement education.

The buzz-word in industry is “agility” and few would call our current approaches to education “agile”. We use dedicated, trained subject teachers, in buildings which are largely detached from the outside world. Children are isolated from the external world for six or seven hours a day and are taught by people who have dedicated themselves to their subjects but have a narrower understanding of the breakneck speed of change in industry and commerce.

The dilemma is particularly pressing given the UK’s need to develop a high-tech, digitally-based economy. How can we educate our young people deeply and flexibly through a system relying on narrow subject specialisms and silo-like educational institutions? We are still too firmly wedded to the idea of buildings and full-time teachers who, for understandable reasons, cannot keep up easily with the complexities of the outside world.

So why not bring the outside world into schools and colleges on a paid basis? Why not supplement our hard-pressed subject-specialists with external knowledge and skill? If we need digital expertise in schools, do what a company would do: Buy it in. There’s no reason why schools and colleges should not become more flexible and open – supplementing their subject specialists with paid auxiliary tutors on a much more extensive scale than hitherto.

A radical suggestion, but one which would replace the current cumbersome classroom/teacher situation with a more open, agile, and enterprising approach. Universities have used “visiting lecturers” for decades – why shouldn’t schools and colleges do the same?

Not only does this approach go a long way towards solving the problem of teachers struggling to keep up to speed with technological developments and the complex interlinkages between subjects and sectors, it also offers employers a chance to pass on relevant industry skills, and prepares youngsters for real-world careers. There is no reason (apart from budgets) why bringing in experts from industry and commerce to give lectures and teaching programs should not become far more commonplace.

In all this, though, we must maintain balance. Technology can easily stifle creativity and encroach on periods of quiet and reflection which are so important for learning and development. For all the importance of digital skills, it is essential that softer skills such as communication and logical thinking are not forgotten.

Two things are absolutely certain: technology will continue to change our lives in unforeseeable ways, and its advance will be relentless and often unpredictable. The digital revolution takes no prisoners, and the education sector must change radically, and soon. British businesses are having to reinvent themselves. Schools, colleges and training providers must follow suit.

We are not talking about a few new computers, tablets, online courses, and some CPD. The next paradigm shift in education will see it entirely transformed. We need a new vocabulary of change including terms like “agile curricula”, “visiting teachers and tutors”, “mandatory CPD”, “smart assessments”, “flexible upskilling”, and so on.

“Change or Die” has been a standard refrain in business for many years. You heard it here first – it’s now coming to every school, college and university in the country.

A radical approach to digital skills?

By Dr Tom Wilson, Research Executive

In the second blog of this series, we review the definition of ‘digital skills’, and the approach to training currently being taken in the UK.

What do we really mean by digital skills? Does it mean that you can develop a sophisticated app in your sleep, or more simply that you are able to view your high score on Minesweeper? Having ‘digital skills’ is a bafflingly variable thing, and what they constitute depends who you’re talking to.

In our experience, and broadly speaking, individuals with digital skills can be segmented into four levels. At the lowest and least demanding level are those who require only entry level skills: being able to go online with confidence, to check emails, for instance, or to use shopping sites and government portals, while at the same time being safe.

The second level includes most low to medium-skilled workers, for whom the skills required range from the ability to use Cloud software (such as Googledocs) and basic commercial applications (e.g. Word) to being familiar with multi-device capabilities, engaging easily in desktop, tablet and mobile situations.

At the third level are those who work in more technical and technology-centred roles. For them, being able to set up a Powerpoint presentation without any hassle is not enough. Rather, they must be capable of a range of higher-level skills, including the application of specialist software and even basic programming of industrial robots and automated machines.

There is, however, a top level in digital terms, in which are found highly skilled digital technicians who are able to program in different high-level languages, develop sophisticated web applications, undertake advanced big data analysis, and develop and engage in cyber-security systems.

From an educational standpoint, the crucial distinction is between those who use digital tools and those who build them. Using our typology, the former consists of levels one, two and most of three. The latter includes a very small proportion of the third level with all of the fourth.

Such is the importance now of using the Internet that the Government views digital skills as being as essential as numeracy and literacy. Indeed, the UK’s Digital Strategy document, published in March last year, outlines the Government’s proposal to offer full funding for adults to gain basic digital skills from 2020, making this a third essential life-skill alongside reading and writing. By supporting and enabling the population, the aim is to boost national productivity in an increasingly digital society.

At the mid-skills level, and perhaps counterintuitively, it is Millennials (those born between the mid-1980s and 2000) who have been found to struggle most, at least in an office environment. Despite having grown up with technology at their fingertips, these ‘digital natives’ are primarily used to mobile technology, and have more difficulty than the ‘digital immigrants’ of Generation X (those born between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s) when it comes to desktop technology and device interoperability. While younger workers are tech-savvy with consumer technology, the older generation are more self-sufficient problem solvers. The scale of the problem is evidenced by the fact that 47% of employers believe that young people do not have the digital skills required for the workplace.

Furthermore, as highlighted previously, the workforce should no longer be expected to simply pick up digital skills by osmosis, but be provided with regular opportunities for lifelong learning as roles evolve to keep up with changes in technology. While organisations up to now have put a focus on developing technology for their business, there is a growing need to invest more in the workforce and equip them with relevant skills for changing roles.

Following the unveiling of the Government’s Digital Strategy last year, the Digital Skills Partnership, was launched in November, with the aim of bringing public, private and charity sectors together to coordinate digital skills and share best practice, and ultimately provide a more coherent approach at a national level. At a local level, the Government is working with business-led local enterprise partnerships to identify the specific digital skills requirements and trends in the workplace.

And at an educational level, there are also several new initiatives on the table. Coding is being introduced to the national curriculum to promote skills that will be relevant for future careers. Apprenticeships are being reformed to address new digital technologies. T-Levels are being introduced to cover topics such as IT support and software design.

However, the education sector has so far demonstrated itself to be slow off the mark in providing adequate training provision for new technologies. Up to this point, individuals wishing to upskill have had two options: either they have the self-motivation to teach themselves, or they have been lucky enough to be trained on the job. Companies have realised that investing in people is the most sensible way forward if the education sector is not providing work-ready, qualified candidates.

It is one thing for the Government to introduce new training initiatives, it is another entirely to ensure that the training providers are adequately equipped to run quality courses. Having a formal standards is a good start (if very difficult to keep up to date), but it is vitally important to ensure that teachers themselves are completely familiar with the latest trends and technological advances. To adapt a phrase: who shall train the trainers themselves?

But all this might be a moot point if we step back a pace: are traditional education routes the most suitable way to provide digital training? Whether the digital revolution heralds the need for a complete re-think about our approach to education will be the feature of the final blog of this series.

Mind the (digital) gap

By Dr Tom Wilson, Research Executive

In the first of a series of blogs focussing on digital skills training and education in the UK, we take a look at the widening gap in the demand and supply of highly technical roles.

Can you code? If so, the world is your oyster. Individuals with strong digital and technology skills have never been more in demand. Those with the knowledge and ability to program, to develop apps, or who have other high-end digital skills in their armoury are among the best-placed in the population to take advantage of the digital revolution.

A joint study between the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2016 highlighted the growing skills gap between the demand and supply of tech-based roles. The real risk is that this will damage growth and innovation in the UK, potentially making it a less attractive place to work. For instance, the report found that 49% of SMEs and, incredibly, 72% of large companies were struggling to fill vacancies with suitable candidates. With the technology sector (then) representing 6% of the UK economy, and with a Gross Value Added (GVA) of £118.4bn in 2015 (and predicted to grow further), suitably qualified individuals have vast opportunities.

Roles requiring workers with a high technological ability are expanding at an incredible rate, with some analysts predicting that up to 1 million new digital jobs will be created by 2023, such is the tremendous explosion in the digital economy.

The UK is not alone in facing such a skills dilemma. The US is facing a digital landscape that is evolving equally as quickly. An increasing number of jobs (~70%) now require a medium to high level of technological skill, and a growing gap in the demand and supply of such workers has similarly been identified.

But why is the UK facing this skills gap in the first place? And how should it go about meeting the demand?

The problem is not just to do with the increasing number of jobs in this area, but also to do with current educational provision. While, in the past, teaching has been provided via traditional educational establishments, the speed of change of our digital society compared to curricula has left the latter behind. Indeed, the current provision of teaching is itself rather variable and inconsistent, with staff themselves acknowledging variable skills and support.

Whether the traditional education system is the correct way to rebalance the skills shortage is an entirely different topic for debate – the subject of a later blog. However, what is clear at the moment is that the current higher education system, and the education system as a whole, is not producing suitably skilled, work-ready people quickly enough.

The traditional educational routes are not simply going to reform themselves overnight. With this in mind, UK organisations need to think carefully about different strategies to bridge skills gaps and shortages in the meantime. But they need to think fast. In the face of the relentless pace of change of the digital world, companies need to adapt and implement new ideas quickly, or risk being side-lined.

The most straightforward option is to increase investment. This could mean investing more money, or more time. Taking the former, making roles more financially attractive would lure an increasing number of applicants. Bringing in talent from abroad would certainly be a sign of intent by UK businesses that this is the place for highly skilled workers to be right now.

Equally, investing time in new and existing employees is increasingly being seen as a necessity. Some companies are willing to hire highly educated individuals without the necessary technical skills, and simply train them up on the job. Most organisations are quickly realising that they must adapt their approach to professional development, by changing their training approach and even their internal culture, and are instead instilling a more lifelong approach to learning as new technologies emerge.

Another, more drastic, middle-term option is to set up emergency training courses at existing educational colleges and institutions as an interim measure. Being aware of the current shortfalls in the range of skills and qualifications required to fill vacant digital skills-based roles, it should not be difficult to put together a number of short-term courses, with the aim of equipping individuals with the skills needed to be eligible for highly tech-based roles. Employers in the digital sector have told us that they can recruit trained staff but that the skills and knowledge of those staff are behind the times. In some cases their programming languages are out of date. Universities and colleges may well need to develop short update courses and even provide on-site help to smaller companies.

Funding for UK businesses facing a critical shortage of suitable workers would not be a bad investment either. Such companies must remain agile to maintain their competitive advantage, and this move would ensure their ability to short-track the learning of individuals to fill vacant positions.

With the Government finally revealing its Digital Strategy last March, there is a national acknowledgement that educational reform is urgently required as digital skills move to becoming vital, everyday skills. However, a broad gap in highly-skilled technology-based roles exists, and despite the unveiling of this new policy, it has primarily been left to businesses to fend for themselves to keep pace with technological change, or they risk being left behind by the digital revolution.

How to prosper from Brexit

By Keith C Pye, Director

Okay. Let’s get the divisive bit over with right up front. A little over half of the nation wanted to leave the EU and a little under half wanted to stay. The problem with the referendum was that it was set up without a threshold, so a bare majority won.

So, where to now?

Well, we can continue our petty bickering about the pros and cons, and keep complaining about the “unfairness” of it all; or we can buckle down and get on with making the best of what could be quite a promising situation.

We at Pye Tait have spoken to a great many employers on the subject in the last year or so, the latter is not only the most sensible way of proceeding, it is also the road British businesses have chosen.

Clearly, we need to ensure certain things happen – that immigration is not so constrained that it damages our employment market; that trade is as free as we can make it; and that we are as free as possible to make our own rules and regulations after the event.

The rest of the EU is hurt, and a little offended, by our decision but they recognise that the UK and the EU must remain extremely close after Brexit and that the negotiations must not damage the prospects for either side. The UK and the EU are huge markets for each other’s goods and services. The UK also happens to be a major military power in NATO and we need the fast-developing military weight of the EU as much as they need ours.

Brexit, therefore, is never going to be as bad as the doomsayers predict. Already, more than half of our exports by value go to the rest of the world – a proportion that has been increasing for the past ten years. At the most conservative estimate, the UK is worth £320bn a year in exports to the EU – around 16% of the EU’s goods and services exports (cf 17% to the USA).

It is incredibly unlikely, therefore, that the UK will be visiting the dark side anytime soon. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US all have strict immigration laws but they still manage to grow and prosper. Excepting President Trump, the world’s major leaders support free-trade. And Britain will soon regain a long-forgotten ability to strike trade deals with whomever we like on whatever terms we like. We often forget it, but the Commonwealth comprises a third of the world’s population and over a quarter of its nations. Perhaps that 2.4 billion market (of whom 60% are under 30 years of age) could become more than just a social and cultural talking shop?

Here at Pye Tait we try to help all sorts of organisations find ways through problems – from how to upskill their staff, to what sorts of national policies will work most effectively in given circumstances. Recently we’ve done a lot of work in the Brexit arena and – while businesses are worried and cautious – the good news is that they are also positive and keenly aware of coming opportunities.

The Government (as always) comes in for a lot of stick, but there are clear signs of positive progress on the education, skills, and business fronts – from action on digital skills (the new computer science curricula and the Digital Strategy) to the new Space Industry Act – one of the most far-seeing sets of space regulations in the world. We have a world-class reputation for digital technology and we have one of the most vibrant start-up environments in the world. In 2016 over 650,000 new businesses were established – second only to the USA. The UK aerospace sector is still one of the world’s best. Rolls Royce sold almost 500 engines in 2017 and BAe Systems turned- over £19bn in aircraft and ships. A world leader in satellite technology the UK’s space sector accounts for 6.5% of the global industry and is growing every year at the same rate. And the UK motor sector is no slouch either – 30 manufacturers and an output of over 1.7m vehicles last year. Even the oft-derided UK shipbuilding industry is growing at not far short of 5% a year.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons the UK could fall flat on its face. But our talks with small and medium-sized businesses around the nation clearly show that the commercial bedrock of the nation is taking things in its stride and cautiously adapting to a new paradigm. SMEs employ 60% of the UK workforce and contribute a little over half of private sector turnover. They are adapting to employment challenges and to a more aggressive exporting stance.

How to prosper from Brexit? Simple. Follow the lead of every small and medium sized business in this country. Our research shows they know the fundamental truth: Brexit will be as good or bad as we make it.

Engineering and Construction – dual skills needed for the future

By Annika Chapman, Research Executive

How much reliance should we place in technology? How much should we trust that machines will always ‘get it right’? Hollywood spends billions every year creating shock and awe scenarios on the subject. Here in the real world, the question centres on how we use digital technologies.

As we’ve found in recent research, the engineering and construction industries are ripe to reap the benefits of technological advances. Taking full advantage of such technologies could dramatically improve companies’ productivity, output and their bottom lines. As the world becomes ever more digital, it’s easy to get excited about the benefits to speed of work and productivity promised by digital technologies. But the often-ignored question is: How do we ensure we are up to the task of managing the implications?

New technologies, such as Machine Learning (algorithms that allow computer programs to learn) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), for example, are becoming increasingly powerful [1]. Able to synthesise and analyse data well in excess of the speed of humans, AI can learn from experiences and processes to make individual projects and whole industries, more efficient. But, what do we do when the machines outstrip the knowledge and abilities of their human masters?

The question becomes even more serious when we fully consider the skills base that some of these new technologies could replace. Such efficiency may soon render redundant simpler professional tasks, such as some of those performed by junior engineers or construction site managers. If so, we urgently need to consider how we equip upcoming engineers and construction technicians with the right competences, when a portion of their off, and on, the job training has become largely unnecessary for humans to complete [2].

Moreover, in the light of machine learning and rapid developments in AI, how do we maintain and keep the skills base of workers, so that they can step in to manually fix a situation which has gone wrong on a project?

Are traditional colleges and universities in the UK up to managing the task of educating students in such rapidly developing yet interdependent skills? Courses may need to enable students to learn traditional mechanically based skills which will be required if the machines go awry, in addition to the digital skills that may supersede them in day to day operations. The digital skills, too, may need to encompass two elements; one to cover the operation and utilisation of digital technologies, and the other to teach an understanding of the legal and security issues which regulate them. It may be necessary that the upcoming workforce have a complete duality in their education of traditional labour skills, as well as the advanced digital skills which will be needed to operate these technologies. Greater depth to multi-disciplinary qualifications and occupations, taking into account these complementary skills, could be the way forward.

Critically, behaviours with respect to continuous learning (CPD) will need to be enhanced to mandate a focus on everything that is being learned and developed by the machines. A crucial part of future work will be the need to keep up with the robots!

We need a new approach to training and development which is much more agile and flexible. The speed of change is not going to slow down, and individual technicians and engineers will not want to be outshone by their machines.

As much as there is to write about new forms of training in the sector, the ability to adapt to changes and remain agile in the workplace is perhaps the most critical skill to have in the future.

Huge changes are coming. Only the most agile and alert will survive.

 

[1] Institute of Civil Engineers (2017), Has digital’s impact on civil engineering really hit us yet? [Online] (Updated 31 July 2017), Available at: https://www.ice.org.uk/news-and-insight/the-civil-engineer/july-2017/has-digitals-impact-civil-engineering-really-hit
[2] Institution of Civil Engineers (2016) How artificial intelligence will reshape civil engineering [Online] (Updated 30 August 2016] Available at: https://www.ice.org.uk/news-and-insight/ice-thinks/infrastructure-transformation/how-artificial-intelligence-will-reshape-civil-eng

T Levels – can stakeholders join the revolution and keep it real?

By Miranda E Pye, Director

Is it a cliché to suggest that the only constancy in life is change? Perhaps, but it must feel very real from the perspective of the Department for Education. Last October Justine Greening, then Education Secretary, announced the ‘biggest ever overhaul’ of technical education when she announced the first new T levels. Brexit was cited as one of the forces driving this ‘skills revolution’ – it seems the UK will need better technical skills if it is to succeed outside the European Union. Although quite why that should be the case is not clear. Why should we need more technical skills outside the Union than within?

In fact, concern about skills pre-dates Brexit by a long, long way. Employers find it problematic to fill STEM-related roles, and it can be difficult to attract young recruits. 72% of manufacturers fear that they will not be able to find the skills they need for their business – and many of them are not waiting for the government to do something. In 2014 Rolls Royce set itself the target of reaching 6 million people through STEM education programmes and activities by 2020. The long-established Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) identified an ‘unhelpful national stereotyping of engineering’ and, over the last couple of years, proactively invited children and their parents to get involved with key players such as BT and the National Theatre to showcase the wide variety of jobs available within the sector. I might also add that our loose approach to nomenclature is not helping. In Germany an engineer is a high-status occupation and no-one can use the title without meeting stringent regulations. In Britain we call virtually anyone an “engineer”.

Knocking at an open door
Employers are very much behind work experience for young people. We know this not least because they keep telling us! The prestigious Manufacturers’ Organisation (EEF) says its members believe that experiencing the world of work is always valuable. Indeed, the T level’s reliance on a challenging 45-60-day work placement suggests that the Government is listening. By mixing academic elements – a rigorous 900 hours of teaching over the two-year programme – with practical experience, the plan is that students will emerge as work-ready, technically-able employees.

When Justine Greening announced the changes, she was supported by a constellation of stellar employers, including EDF, Rolls Royce, Skanska and Morphy Richards. The nation’s largest business organisation – the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – rightly focuses on the potential impact of the work placement which – as with the earlier Diploma project – is a key element in T Levels. Ed Richardson, CBI’s senior policy adviser for skills recently commented: ‘T levels have the potential to be revolutionary, opening up new routes to skilled work.’ The crucial point, though is that the ‘key priorities for firms are delivering sufficient high-quality work placements, ensuring … universal provision in all parts of the country.’ And there, as one of our famous ancestors correctly said, is the rub.

Major challenge
In response to the DfE’s consultation, The Association of Colleges (AOC) highlights employer engagement as a major challenge. They are unequivocal about the prospects for the work-placements: Providing the projected 180,000 work placements is, the AOC has said, impossible.

The very thing that makes the T level exciting and different therefore, is also its sticking point. The success of the qualification is reliant on work placements – and on learning providers’ ability to source and sustain them. Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) puts it simply ‘without the availability of work placements, nothing else counts’. It’s no wonder that some learning providers are daunted by the prospect.

Flexibility and support
In our many conversations with employers, SMEs and sole traders feel particularly challenged by the requirements of the T level work placement. Whilst the Government is right to put the work placement ball back in the employers’ court, it also needs to make sure they have the freedom to make it work. If businesses struggle with an extended work placement, or lack the infrastructure to support it, why not allow a more flexible approach? How about the possibility of a portfolio style work placement? This could involve an embedded work placement tailored to the pathway. It could also mean remote working, or a mixture of shorter placements, undertaken in combination with employability and work skills programmes in college. Learners could use technical master classes, experience gained within in-house commercial facilities, Realistic Working Environments, or employer-led projects or ‘industry Labs’ to become work ready.

Where does this leave the beleaguered learning providers? After all, the uniform approach was a bid to underpin quality and consistency. Surely, they hold the keys to T level success as the lynch-pin in the partnership between Government and employers. With the explicit support of Greening’s successor, Damian Hinds, they should push to capitalise on existing relationships and proven technical resources to join and shape the revolution.

The important factor here is that T level work placements need to meet business needs on the ground. Employers want young people with the right skills, and many of them are willing to invest time and resources to get them. Regardless of the size of the business, employers will be put off by hassle, red tape and a lack of support. If Government can keep the message simple, retain a flexible approach and provide help when needed, they can develop work placements to benefit employers and students alike.

The Heritage Dilemma

By Adrian J O Smith, Research Manager

Have you ever wondered why “heritage” attracts such strong feelings?

It’s essential that we conserve the best of our heritage but what does that actually mean in terms of the degree of preservation?

If we leave out for the moment the very clear need to preserve edifices such as Stonehenge and to protect our rich stock of castles and ancient buildings, there is a more modern battlefield. It centres on the argument about how old a historic building has to be before it is subject to heritage conservation measures and techniques. Perhaps more importantly, what aspects of heritage are we trying to protect?

Rows of Georgian townhouses, for example, benefit from a great deal of preservation across the nation. But – apart from their age – what is it that makes them special? Is it their appearance? Is it the building techniques used to sculpt them? Is it the type of stonework and paint? For some, the answer is ‘everything’, but that would mean preserving the primitive outside privies, barring of toilets and baths, prohibiting central heating, and possibly even ripping out electricity and gas supplies.

And then there is the most important question – “why”?

If the answer is something along the lines of “they are attractive and represent part of our history” then that boils down to two issues. Are we attempting to create a living museum (but with significant compromises) or are we simply trying to preserve a “look and feel of the past”? Notwithstanding the importance of safety, does it make a difference whether we use old or modern materials? If a uPVC replacement window looks like wood why should it not replace wood? If new solar tiles look like slate then is there any real harm in replacing slate? If modern mortars and cements work better than the originals and look the same, why should they not be used? And, if doors and fascia boards etc. can be replaced with thermally-efficient uPVC equivalents which cannot be distinguished from the originals at more than three yards’ distance, then is it OK to use them?

It’s certainly important to avoid any work that could cause long term physical damage to structures, such as damp, and, unless trades people know what they’re doing, the ramifications of getting it wrong can take a long while to appear in older buildings, by which point it could be too late. But as local authority planning resources are becoming increasingly squeezed and household budgets tighten, perhaps we should be thinking more openly about some of these questions.

MOOCs – the future of corporate CPD?

In recent years, the MOOC – or Massive Open Online Course – has been causing a stir within the higher education scene in the United States. Branded as a tool to democratise education, MOOCs offer learners the opportunity to take specially designed online courses delivered by Ivy League University professors at their own pace, in the comfort of their own homes, and more often than not, for free.

The first MOOC was launched in 2008 and within four years their growth in popularity and demand in the United States led to the New York Times dubbing 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’. Since then, the popularity of MOOCs has spread across the globe. In 2013, the Open University – the UK’s high successful distance-learning platform – launched FutureLearn which hosts specialist MOOC courses from the top universities in the UK and abroad including King’s College London, Cardiff University, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Edinburgh. MOOCs are now offered from universities across Asia, Europe, South America and Australasia.

The business world has taken notice. The notion of the ‘flipped classroom’, whereby traditional classwork is replaced by specially designed homework which learners discuss and mark among themselves, is becoming an increasing popular concept with employers and is a format in which the MOOC excels. In addition, the MOOC’s offer of cheap and easily accessible courses catering for learners of all levels has the potential to dramatically affect the future of corporate training. A recent report from Duke University and RTI International found that over 70 per of employers surveyed could envisage using MOOCs in the future as part of their CPD training provision.

So why are there not more businesses switching to MOOCs? One explanation may be the lack of universally recognised certificates and qualifications awarded at upon completion of a MOOC. Although some course providers award their own approved certificates, currently these are not widely recognised as an equivalent to a qualification achieved from the university itself. Duke University’s research suggests that this could change in the future, with over half of the employers surveyed stating that they would consider using MOOCs during recruitment as an indication of a candidate’s character i.e. motivated, organised, interested in personal development .

There are also a limited number of business centric courses – a large proportion of MOOCs focus on computer science and technology – although this looks to change in the future with the growing interest and level demand for MOOCs on all disciplines.

As MOOCs continue to grow rapidly in popularity and alter the education and training landscape as a result, could they also pave the way for a new approach to employee CPD training?