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What next? It used to be so much easier for school leavers to answer “what next?” and for parents and teachers to offer guidance, but we now have a confusing wealth of options.
For many, university was the obvious next step but, with the expense and value of a degree increasingly in question, it is not as easy a choice as it once was. Towns are no longer dominated by a single major employer and the simplicity of knowing your future employer is also gone.
Apprenticeship starts have been on the rise under this Government but there is relatively little understanding of what they entail and the opportunities they present. Culturally, society still looks to university as the stepping stone to a good career and too often schools are narrowly recognised for the numbers of their children who attend university rather than their ability to deliver a broader education that prepares children for life. Thankfully this is now starting to change.
Jo Johnson MP, the Higher Education Minister, has said that he would not mind if his children did not go to university and that “the days of degree or bust are long gone.” This is a welcome attitudinal change but the filtering through society of this view is going to take a long time.
We know that there is less career certainty than there was but we are also less clear about what the options are or, at least, what they will deliver. In a recent essay, Ruth Davidson MSP, set out a powerful case for a reinvigorated vision of capitalism. First, defending its dazzling achievement of routing extreme poverty and creating a healthier, wealthier world. Second, to set the challenge for where capitalism needs to take us and what we as a nation and a government need to do.
Ruth describes the radical changes that happen in the shipping industry and, as a lad from Liverpool, I grew up with stories about the poor conditions that the dockers faced and the decline of our ports. Inflexible work practices and containerisation meant the end of a once great but low-skill industry. Young people would hardly want to work in that environment now, but the new £400 million Liverpool2 deep water port couldn’t be more different. Many of the jobs on offer are far more skilled and productive and will help enable the re-industrialisation of the North of England.
S. Lowry’s vision of a bleak industrial landscape still resonates but could not be further from the truth of so much of Britain’s modern industry. I worked in the mass-spectrometry industry for nearly twenty years before entering politics and South Manchester is one of its global centres – but few would know it. Mass spectrometers combine precision engineering, advanced electronics and the most sophisticated software but it all goes on behind the anonymous façade of buildings that, from the outside, could be housing a large legal firm.
There needs to be a far better understanding in schools of the advances in the nature of work and the rewards of working in modern Britain. We need far better engagement between our industrial and educational sectors to inspire and enable children to have a vision of what’s possible rather than being mired in the past. This is set to become even more important in the future since, as Alan Mak MP recently highlighted in the last edition of this magazine, we are now entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution where Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will set the scene for a wealth of yet-to-be-conceived disruptive technology.
Just as the textile, shipping, mining and many other blue-collar industries have radically reformed or disappeared, the same is now going to happen to other aspects of our white collar industries such as retail, accountancy and law.
The gig economy has rightfully received a great deal of attention recently, especially with the publication of Matthew Taylor’s thoughtful government-commissioned report on Modern Working Practices, but it would be wrong for the media to continue to wilfully characterise the future of employment as being in low-paid, zero-hour contract work with ever decreasing rights. Unemployment is at its lowest since the early 1970s, manufacturing is at its highest since 1988 and the IMF is predicting continued UK growth.
Ultimately, the question we must ask is, are our school, college and university leavers equipped for a fully globalised and digitalised world where the pace of change continues to accelerate? The answer is complex and we will always be playing catch up as new and disruptive technologies emerge. Fundamentally our ability to prosper in an increasingly competitive world depends upon government setting the right foundations for business to invest and prosper in the UK, attracting the right talent from overseas but, most of all, for this increasingly well-educated and motivated generation to engage with, and adapt to, an ever-changing world of work.