Rethink skills and training for the COVID-19 recovery

Just as the NHS provides care from cradle to grave, we need a skills entitlement from school to retirement and every major point of a working life in between, says Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, Chair of West Yorkshire Combined Authority, Chair of the Future Ready Skills Commission and Leader of Bradford Council

Controlling the virus so that we can start to unlock the economy is completely front of mind for all of us. But we also have to plan ahead to stop a second tragedy – increased unemployment when furlough ends.  Economists are predicting that the aftermath of COVID-19 may result in levels of unemployment not seen since the 1980s, with whole industries and sectors decimated. The brunt of the impact will be felt hardest by those already least able to cope - the young, those with no qualifications and apprentices all stand to be the groups most gravely affected. 

The Government came to power in December with a promise to “level up” the country and unlock the potential of all our regions. The devastating impact of COVID-19 means it is now even more important that this promise is honoured. 

Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe

I know the disadvantages that low skills and a lack of access to opportunities can create. It gets in the way of people fulfilling their potential. West Yorkshire’s labour market is the largest in the Northern Powerhouse, but just over a quarter of us have few or no qualifications. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a quarter of jobs paid below the real living wage, with many employers pursuing a low skill and low wage model that offers little opportunity for people to progress. Yet during the pandemic it has been these very workers who have kept the country moving.  They’ve been on the frontline in factories, shops and care homes putting their lives at risk.  For these, our frontline heroes, we now have a moral obligation to create a better country where their hard work is rewarded and their talents encouraged.

I want to see Government make a major investment in skills and training to spur the economic recovery after COVID-19. But historically the UK views skills and training the same way a child looks at eating their greens - something to do begrudgingly at best, and at worst, avoid. Many employers do not invest enough in their workforce or see the value of training. Too much training is a tick-box exercise in meeting statutory requirements in areas like health and safety, rather than developing the potential of our workforce with training and enhanced skills. 

We have to say goodbye to an era when many of us used to leave formal education after school, college or university and feel that our time of learning was done, and what we knew by our late teens or early 20s should be enough to last us a lifetime of work. The low levels of take-up for adult education in this country are hugely disappointing and cannot continue. Unless we radically change our attitude towards skills and training and embrace the UK becoming a higher skills labour market, we cannot meaningfully change living standards for the better. 

Just as the NHS provides care from cradle to grave, we need a skills entitlement from school to retirement and every major point of a working life in between. People need rights around training. Their rights need to be backed up with support from employers and the state, and funding to help people meet their ambitions. It’s tragic that we live in a country where, if you haven’t got on the right educational path by 19 then you’ve lost your chance. Everyone deserves at least a second chance. 

This could be a commitment to getting everyone GCSE-level qualifications in core subjects, regardless of age or background. Funding models need to be put in place that unlock aspirations to get on in life and gain new skills. People also need access to clear, independent careers advice so they can be informed about the choices they make. 

Undoubtedly, we need a substantial national investment in skills and training, and it cannot come soon enough. But every penny of public funding will count in building the recovery, so we need to avoid an inflexible, one-size-fits-all approach where national Government thinks it knows best. Government should set the framework for a national approach to the skills agenda, but local areas must be empowered to guide learners in a way that best suits the needs of local businesses and the economy. 

The Government’s £100 million National Retraining Scheme is a clear example of a national scheme failing to resonate with individuals at a local level. Between February and April this year, when we have seen the demand for retraining at a peak, only 15 users in Leeds City Region accessed the site. In contrast, in only two weeks over the same period, 4,000 people accessed information about retraining opportunities through our own Combined Authority local offer - delivered at a fraction of the cost and linking people to skills we know are in demand in our area.


A recent paper by the TUC Yorkshire & the Humber on the post-COVID-19 recovery argues that city regions, LEPs and Local Authorities are best-placed to advise on skills priorities for their regions, and deliver skills for the new green industries that will make up the economy of tomorrow. This will mean new rights around retraining and more flexibility for apprenticeships to serve the needs of employers and employees.

Looking forward to a time post COVID-19, levelling up and building a resilient economy means creating a forward-looking skills system, based on the needs of the people, businesses and local economies it is intended to serve. Employers need to be able to find people with the right skills, and individuals must have a right to careers advice and training that helps them get on in life. Simply continuing as we have always done will not create a country fit for frontline heroes.