Centre for London Conference 2017: Alison Wolf on upskilling

Centre for London Conference 2017: Alison Wolf on upskilling

The various speakers at Centre for London’s 2017 London Conference provided lots to think about, including Peter Mandelson, who contended that Jeremy Corbyn needs to convert Tory voters as well as unifying the anti-Tory vote behind him and acknowledged that Tony Blair and New Labour would have been better off not trying to stop Ken Livingstone becoming Labour’s candidate for the first London Mayor election in 2000 (and, after all, it didn’t them one bit of good). But someone else’s contribution made a particular impression due to the clarity of its case for better equipping Londoners with the skills they need to take advantage of the changing world of work.

Economist Alison Wolf – Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, if we’re being extra polite – is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College and specialises in the interface between educational institutions and labour markets. One of a five-woman panel (second from right in the photo) who provided a session on upskilling, Wolf made the point that although, famously, London’s schools do very well compared with the rest of the country, especially up to the age of 16, there is still a problem.

“We also have a very large number of people who are not suited to or interested in an academic track,” she said. “And we have a very poor track record on apprenticeships.” The professor thinks we don’t have enough of these, let alone enough good ones, and that too many people fail to complete them. “I really hope that over the next decade London business can truly engage with this,” she said.

She then took issue with the view, often expressed, that the middle of the job market is disappearing. “This has been wildly exaggerated in my view,” she said. “Of course, a lot of old jobs are vanishing, and there is some evidence of a change in the wage structure, which makes it very difficult for a family to live off one skilled wage. But if you look at the area where there are the greatest skills shortages, they are almost all in that middle [area] – so it’s technician jobs, it’s skilled craft jobs. And the area where we have a crisis and should be ashamed of ourselves is construction.”

This has been made up for to some extent by migrant labour, notably from Poland. But the problem is long-standing and growing. Wolf added that, while she thought it quite right that much attention is focussed on helping women to enter the labour market and progress, she feels that “the most neglected demographic in the city is, by far, working-class boys. I think the death of construction apprenticeships has been particularly bad for them.” Correcting that, she argued, “should be a priority for this city. If we don’t we are going to have a very, very serious problem”.

Her final point was that the impact of automation is often misinterpreted in that it will primarily affect professional jobs: “Machines are good at taking expert knowledge and subjecting it to algorithms. That’s the sort of stuff that people like accountants do. And to conclude: “Yay for technical skills, yay for soft skills and we really have to sort out apprenticeships please.”

You might not be convinced by all of it – some of her fellow panelists weren’t – but London has no business not thinking about it.

Professor Wolf’s fellow panellists were Hang Ho from from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Vivian Hunt from McKinsey and London First CEO Jasmine Whitbread. The chair was Caroline Artis, EY’s London senior partner. You can read more about their upskilling discussion here (from 10:25), along with much more about the London Conference. And you can read my interview with Deputy Mayor Jules Pipe about improving Londoners’ skills training here. Photograph from Centre for London.

Categories: Analysis

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