William Eichler 18 March 2019

Progress on qualification and skill levels must be made ahead of Brexit

The Government and employers must do more to increase qualification and skill levels in the British workforce in the face of Britain’s possible exit from the European Union, think tank says.

A Resolution Foundation audit of skills and educational attainment shows that the profile of Britain’s workforce has transformed over the last 25 years.

In 1996-98 the most common qualification level for a UK worker was no higher than GCSEs. Today, the most common qualification is a degree, with the number of degrees going from 17% in 1996-98 to 40% in 2016-18.

This has helped reduce the gender and race divides on educational attainment. For example, the proportion of young black women with degrees has more than trebled over this period (from 13 to 49%).

However, the Resolution Foundation warned that ‘big geographic and class divides still persist across Britain.’

People living outside cities and the South East are still less likely to have a degree than people living in Inner London were 25 years ago, and young people with high-skilled parents are almost three times as likely to have a Masters degree as those with low- and mid-skilled parents.

The think tank’s report, entitled Pick up the Pace, also found that there has been a slowdown on education attainment growth since the mid-2000s. This poses an ‘even bigger problem’ after Brexit, it warns.

Between 1997 and 2003, the number of young people with degrees increased 1.8 percentage points a year. However, since 2004 this growth has halved to just 0.9 percentage points.

This slowdown means that Britain still has many low-skilled workers, with one-in-eight young people not having GCSE A*-C-equivalent qualifications. The report adds that Britain’s skills slowdown does not reflect a lack of demand from firms, as 220,000 skills-shortage vacancies were reported in 2017.

‘People’s qualifications and skill-levels have increased substantially over the last 25 years. This has boosted our productivity and their pay, and transformed Britain’s economy and society,’ said Kathleen Henehan, policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation.

‘But worryingly, this welcome progress has slowed considerably since the mid-2000s.

‘As a result, Britain still has a shamefully long-tail of young people with only basic-level qualifications, while firms report skills shortages for higher level technical qualifications.

‘With Brexit set to bring about a huge shake-up of our labour market, policy makers and firms should use it as a prompt for restarting progress on skills and educational attainment.

‘This should involve massively increasing the provision and quality of technical and vocational education, and doing far more to upskill existing workers.’

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