How Can We Mitigate the Impact of the COVID-19 Unemployment Crisis Through Lifelong Learning?

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A new report by City-REDI and the Industrial Strategy Council presents evidence on some of the skills challenges facing the UK and how they might be addressed. Dr Abigail Taylor considers the key points in the report that are relevant to the West Midlands as it seeks to plan its recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

View and download the report – Rising to the UK’s Skills Challenges

We are entering an unemployment crisis as a result of COVID-19. Since the lockdown began the number of people out of work and claiming work-related benefits in the UK has risen by 23% to 2.8 million in May. With the furlough scheme being wound down from August and ending in October, it is likely unemployment will rise further in the coming months.

What can be done to mitigate the impact of the unemployment crisis?

The importance of promoting lifelong learning

Lifelong learning is becoming more important in the context of COVID-19. In addition to the job losses caused by the crisis, workers around the world who remain in employment have faced changes in how and where they work including the rapid increase in the use of digital technology.

Developing an effective lifelong learning system for all is essential to addressing employers’ changing skills needs and ensuring that individuals have the skills they require to find work in the increasingly challenging labour market.

The report emphasises how information campaigns, employer and union learning representatives, and managers can all play a role in communicating the benefits and necessity of lifelong learning to employees. Introducing clearer signposting regarding what different forms of adult funding support can be used for, together with greater guidance on eligibility, can help local skill providers to adapt to local skill needs.

Lifelong learning is becoming more important in the context of Covid-19.
Supporting managers to better promote skills development and utilisation

Leadership quality and broader institutional culture are critical in determining opportunities for learning and driving up participation in training.

The report reveals the role managers play in skills development and utilisation. If managers and leaders are to effectively upskill their workforce to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, it is essential they receive appropriate training and organisational support.

Clear training objectives and career progression pathways within organisations, coupled with better data and more developed systems to develop training and monitor its impact, will help managers to foster and support workplace skills development and utilisation.

Developing strategic and local partnerships

The report suggests that developing effective strategic and/or local partnerships will also be key to regions like the West Midlands in addressing the skills challenges they face going forward. Evidence reveals some of the most successful international skills systems feature strong partnerships between the State, education providers, and businesses and, in many cases, social partners such as trade unions. Closer collaboration between business and education can be supported through increased opportunities for providers to work with business, improved training for trainers and mentors, and the establishment of technical colleges.

If managers and leaders are to effectively upskill their workforce to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, it is essential they receive appropriate training and organisational support.

For example, in both Canada and France sector councils play an important role in anticipating skill needs within and across sectors and using sector-specific knowledge to develop recommendations for education and training. France shows how employers’ organisations and trade unions can take a leading role in funding sector councils. It also indicated how without significant levels of state funding, sector councils can lack visibility and sufficient resources to fulfil their roles effectively. Strong support from central government for partnerships between employees, employers, government and social partners is important.

Whilst the scale of the COVID-19 crisis may create pressures for significant policy change, Policy stability and continuity emerges as important for employers to navigate the skills system and build relationships within it. Interviews conducted as part of the project indicate the need for existing policy to be tailored rather than replaced. Improved use of information and data analysis is likely to be important in better meeting sectoral and local needs while supporting existing objectives to raise productivity and improve competitiveness.

Reducing future skills mismatches and incentivising lifelong learning

Overall, whilst individuals will need to take greater responsibility for their learning going forward, and managers must foster an environment that promotes upskilling, the report makes clear that stakeholders across the skills system will need to work together to develop a clear overarching vision for UK skills and a long-term commitment to delivery in order to reduce future skills mismatches and incentivise lifelong learning.

Dr Abigail Taylor and Professor Anne Green have published three reports following Abigail’s ESRC-funded secondment to the Industrial Strategy Council. The projects examine the challenges facing the UK’s skill system, employers’ perspectives on skills and training, and how the UK can learn from successful international skills systems. Find out more about the project

This blog was written by Dr Abigail Taylor, Research Fellow, City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham. 

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The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WM REDI or the University of Birmingham

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