Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon addressed the Skills for Growth Conference.
It’s great to be here to talk about how skills are intrinsically linked to productivity growth. Around a third of the productivity growth in the two decades to 2019 can be directly attributed to skills acquisition and education.
We have a rich history of a skills culture in our country. Back in 1835, this site was home to the Westminster Hospital. The National Archives show the hospital employed apprentices here. That helps to illustrate that technical education has long been ingrained in our economic and social history.
While we can all agree that skills are the catalyst for boosting economic growth and accelerating competitiveness, we lag behind our international peers.
Indeed, UK employers spend about half of the European average on training for their employees.
We must change that picture immediately – especially when we have the solid foundations in place with all our skills offers for businesses to thrive.
We must improve internationally. I am a huge admirer of German technical education.
Presenting technical routes alongside academic ones from adolescent means there is no false hierarchy between the two. There is less snobbery about studying for a technical role – one that will advance industry, and, by extension, the economy.
And there is absolutely no hesitancy about showing the world of work to younger teenagers – an environment that they are expected to take seriously, but where they are also taken seriously as well.
When I first visited Germany in 2018, I found it inspiring.
14-year-olds on placements with local companies – acquiring their first taste of industry and gaining the respect that comes with skilled labour.
I remember asking business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce why they were providing placements – after all, there was no financial incentive on offer.
I was met with incredulity.
“What do you mean, why?”
“We must do this, it’s for the next generation!”
So embedded is the German sense of civic duty to pass on an understanding and respect for industry, they didn’t understand the question.
Yet I know from the employers that I meet, that we’ve also got that passion in abundance in our country.
We’ve got to use that passion to show the impact skills can have on our young people, local communities, and our businesses.
Whenever I talk about skills education, I articulate my vision through the Ladder of Opportunity. It’s a framework for what we need to build a robust technical education system, to elevate skills levels, and crucially, to generate economic growth.
Critically, the Ladder must bring progression opportunities to the most disadvantaged in society, so they can reach the top, to enjoy sustainable, skilled, and high-waged employment.
The first rung of the ladder is careers empowerment. Careers information must be about work experience and skills.
Travelling across the country in National Apprenticeship Week, I heard from many apprentices that they had found out more about apprenticeships from friends, Instagram, and TikTok, than hearing about them in school.
We need to get carers advice right every single time. That advice must be impartial and comprehensive – one that presents every option.
Using the resources of the Careers and Enterprise Company, I will ensure schools prioritise careers guidance – and enhance the quality of advice young people receive on all technical education routes.
The second rung on my Ladder is about championing apprenticeships and skills that employers need.
We now spend almost 100% of the apprenticeship budget in England.
Government funding for high-quality apprenticeships will reach £2.7 billion by 2024-25. And the budget funds apprenticeships for all employers – including those that do not pay the levy.
It’s vital that employers of all-sizes can connect with apprenticeships.
I know there are voices calling for flexibilities around the levy. I listen intently to what employers are thinking around the levy.
I also hear from significant numbers of employers who are vociferous advocates for what the levy is achieving today.
Julie Hyett from AON is one of many giving her endorsement to the levy.
She said: “Our colleagues and the communities in which we operate, have benefitted hugely from proactive management of the levy…..over 15 per cent of our UK workforce has further enhanced their skills……and gifting a further £1 million to apprentices in small businesses across the country, the levy provides us with a unique opportunity to invest in the workforce of the future.”
We’ve made it easier for large employers to transfer 25 per cent of levy funds to SMEs.
You will all have a multitude of SMEs in your supply chains – they are our great innovators.
Since September 2021, a total of 320 employers including Amazon, Nat West, B&Q, John Lewis, Serco, and National Grid have pledged to transfer over £21 million to support apprenticeships in other businesses.
This year, we also plan to double the number of starts on the Skills Bootcamp: Pathway to Accelerated Apprenticeships model. This is about progression – allowing individuals to get ‘in’ via a Bootcamp and then get ‘on’ into an apprenticeship.
As we expand the delivery of Skills Bootcamps, we will also drive-up skills supply to a wider range of occupations in priority sectors. Employers can recruit directly off a Skills Bootcamp at no cost – and you gain someone who has already tried and tested their new career and developed new skills.
This means that these candidates hit the ground running on day one. And they become occupationally competent more quickly. There is compelling evidence that learners can speed up their apprenticeship journey from between 3 to 6 months which includes their Skills Bootcamp stint.
The combination of employers plus the skills sector creates a formidable force.
It’s one of the reasons behind the 21 new and imaginative Institutes of Technology. Backed by funding of £290 million, these are exciting collaborations between Further Education colleges, universities, and local employers.
They are all working together to deliver high-quality technical education in subjects as diverse as advanced manufacturing, cyber security, and agri-tech.
Employers involved include Microsoft, Gatwick Airport, Rolls Royce, Nissan, Airbus, and Siemens – all helping to push our Higher Technical Qualifications agenda.
The third rung of the ladder is about high-quality qualifications. High-quality is the DNA of apprenticeships. Let me be clear – I will never compromise on quality.
We now have over 670 apprenticeship Standards – designed by employers, for employers. Covering science, fashion, engineering, broadcasting, construction – the opportunities are endless.
It’s absolutely right that Standards are rigorous, challenging, and resilient – because they have to meet the needs of employers. And apprentices must have the confidence that they will acquire the skills and knowledge needed in the global talent race.
That’s why I’m incredibly proud of Degree apprenticeships. They are vital to supporting productivity and widening participation. Learners on Levels 6 and 7 now make up more than 1 in 10 of all new apprenticeship starts.
There’s an amazingly diverse range of opportunities here including Police Constable, Registered Nurse, Chartered Surveyor, and Teacher providing alternative pathways into these sought-after professions.
I also want to shine a light on T Levels. Employers have been firmly in the crosshairs for our new T Levels – aimed at students aged 16 to 19. Again, this skills offer has been designed by hundreds of employers.
T Levels give young people the knowledge and practical skills to galvanise your businesses. At the heart of each course, every T Level student completes an industry placement that lasts approximately 45 days. This gives you a unique opportunity to develop new talent, and get young people work-ready.
The penultimate rung of the ladder is about lifelong learning.
And there is now a new Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
We need to give people the opportunity to train, retrain, and upskill throughout their lives to respond to the changing demands of businesses.
Because careers are not linear.
The robots are coming – but we’ll always need skilled people.
The final rung of my Ladder is job security and prosperity. The skills system must support people into secure, sustained, and well-paid employment.
For employers, skills are not only about reputation, recruitment, and relationships. Skills are about revenue and a strong return on investment.
Apprenticeships, T Levels, Higher Technical Qualifications, Skills Bootcamps – these programmes are the ‘golden thread’ that can solve your skills gaps and build your promising talent pipelines.
Today, our spotlight is on partnerships and dialogue. We want to work with you on what you need from the skills system.
Ministers, my department’s Non-Executive Directors, Senior Civil Servants – all are here to listen to your challenges around skills training in your sectors.
We understand why skills matters to UK plc. Now we want to understand your take on things as they stand. We are committed to working with you to ensure skills work for your business.
And you have an essential role to play as well.
Now is the time for you, as business leaders, to seize the moment and take ownership of your role as talent developers for UK plc.
Now is the time for you, as enlightened employers, to invest in young people eager to make positive contributions to the world of work.
Now is the time to expand the abilities of your existing teams, by re-skilling them to take advantage of new developments in your sector.
You’ve been able to meet some extraordinary young people today – full of energy, creativity, determination, and a passion to succeed.
You can create the opportunities these young people need. Your investment in skills will not only transform lives – it will transform your businesses.
We will be with you every step of the way.
Today’s conversations are a decisive starting point to a better skills system and a burgeoning economy.
Pledge to get behind skills, and we pledge to back you.
Thank you for listening.