London’s schools and universities are considered world class, but its provisions for equipping young people in particular with vocational skills have long been considered neglected, patchy and confusing. This has led to some of the capital’s most important employment sectors being less likely to recruit the workers it needs from within London itself.
London Mayor Sadiq made manifesto pledges about addressing this “skills gap” and has today announced a taskforce and other measures towards honouring them. Improving skills training is among the responsibilities of one of his deputies, Jules Pipe, the highly experienced former Mayor of Hackney and chair of London Councils. London Mayors lack direct powers in this area, but can work with others to distribute funds and work with a common purpose to effect change.
I interviewed Jules Pipe about his skills role, Khan’s goals and the changes they both wish to effect.
Question: Can you summarise for me what the skills part of your job title entails?
Answer: In the narrowest sense it’s about setting up a task force of eight experts: four drawn from business and four who are experts in the delivery of skills training. Those eight people will inform me and Southwark Council leader Peter John, who leads on business, skills and Brexit at London Councils and the ten of us will make a recommendation to the mayor over how the skills agenda should be taken forward.
It’s primarily about creating a whole system to achieve two things on an ongoing basis: one, helping businesses get the skilled labour force it needs; two, the flipside of that, helping people who haven’t benefited from economic growth in London to do so, whether that’s by being got into the labour market or helping people with low skill levels in low paid jobs to be able to make progress.
There’s also practical bits and pieces along the way, such as how to make best use of London’s adult education funding if and when we finally get that devolved to us by the government.
Q: Lots of London’s children leave school with good qualifications, yet we have a lot of youth unemployment. How will the skills taskforce help with that?
A: Some of them are just let down by completely inadequate advice and guidance. London is no different from the rest of the country in that respect. The mayor has asked us to come up with a specific, post-16 skills strategy. We would like the government to give us control of vocational training for 16-18 year-olds. There’s no sign of that yet, but one thing we can make a difference to is the way we talk about skills and careers in schools, as early as primary age.
We need to do much more to demonstrate to young kids the range of options they have and that they shouldn’t be intimidated by fancy places with fancy jobs in the City, or the West End because they don’t have role models for that, or don’t see themselves or their families in those roles. We need to break all that down. I’ve said that sort of thing to roomfuls of engaged professionals and there’s always a lot of nodding, so it does seem to have some resonance out there.
As young people go through secondary school, they need really good advice so they can begin to shape their direction of travel – not channelling them too early, but so they can start thinking earlier about their options, matching them with their interests and finding the pathways they need to map out. And maybe taking a reality check – they aren’t all going to be superstars, but are plenty of good careers they can get into.
A theme behind what we’re doing is trying to rehabilitate how the country thinks about the value of vocational careers and therefore skills, because the whole further education thing hasn’t got the cachet that London’s school and London’s higher education has. It should be seen as the vital third leg of the skills stool. Yet it’s something that we don’t really talk about, regardless of the fact that there are some really good players who do some really great things out there.
This means that even if a child is really practical and might be great in the construction industry, you can’t convince parents to encourage them down that path if they think their career options will be limited. But if you tell them their child can go on to a building site, learn all sorts of trades, get some sort of further education at the same time and even go on to get a degree in engineering they might feel differently.
Q: The government’s national levy on larger companies to fund apprenticeships is intended to help meet skills shortages, but there are concerns that it won’t work well for London. What is your view?
A: The danger is that London is going to become a huge generator of this money but could be a tricky place for spending it. The way the rules were originally written would have meant firms having to spend the money effectively within their own four walls. If you are a top end legal firm, what are your options for bringing in the sorts of people this is meant to be for? The rules have now been relaxed a bit, so 10% of the levy can be used by employers further down the chain, with contractors and so on. But it would helpful if the amount was greater. Also, we’re lobbying for a bit of it to be used in a more creative way on those who are furthest from being apprenticeable, because they lack very basic skills. We’ve had a reasonable response back from ministers, though it’s very much along the lines of “that sounds like a good idea” at the moment. If we don’t get those flexibilities, there’s a danger of the money going unspent and then going out of London altogether.
Q: The whole area of apprenticeships seems extremely confusing. Should the mayor set up a website where all the apprenticeships available in London are listed in one place?
A: Before doing that we’d need to establish exactly what an apprenticeship is. There is a huge problem out there, caused by the rush to create apprenticeships, such as what is really just badly paid with the label “apprenticeship” stuck on it. We need good quality apprenticeships that lead through to careers. We need to address that first, because otherwise you’ve got a quality control issue. Would the website be endorsing the quality of the offer? We need to bring greater clarity to this area so people can understand it, crucially with parents as well as with students. The mayor’s skills strategy will attempt to bring some coherence to that landscape.
Q: One thing I’ve read about for the first time recently is are things called learner loans. What are they?
A: Just you can have student loans to go to university, you can have things called learner loans to study in an FE setting. But awareness and take up of them is very low. The mayor has a manifesto commitment to improve that.
Q: In the Skills for Londoners section of mayor’s election manifesto there’s a commitment to “make gender equality a focus”. How will that be pursued?
A: There are two strands of activity already going on, in construction and in digital skills. The Mayor’s Construction Academy will be a virtual joining up of what’s out there, and in digital we have the Ada College in Haringey and will be launching the Mayor’s Digital Talent Programme. In both of those there’s an emphasis on encouraging girls – before they are young women – to develop STEM skills [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths]. I visited the Skills London event that London First put on, which had an exhibition of the Thames Tideway project. There was a young woman there, who had been to university to do English Literature but dropped out after a year. Back at home she saw her brother’s engineering drawings and got interested. Now she’s in an apprenticeship with the Tideway that will lead to a degree. It was a brilliant example of a young woman totally at home in that field.
Q: Should skills be seen as part of the wider regeneration programme?
A: Yes. I think it works perfectly within the City For All Londoners document that Sadiq published, setting the direction of travel for all the seven key strategies he must produce, such as transport, housing, and environment, that will feed into the London Plan. The skills strategy isn’t statutory, but it will underpin the statutory economic development strategy and be very much part and parcel of making the city a fairer, more inclusive place. That is the golden thread that runs through Sadiq’s entire manifesto.
Q: What are implications of leaving the European Union likely to be for this area of activity in City Hall?
A: Clearly there is a whole series of sectors in London that are very heavily dependent on an EU presence, especially hospitality and construction. The problem we’re facing in the short term is uncertainty. The mayor has taken a balanced approach. He’s been very clear that he wants to see London remain very open to the world and we would be damaging London and the country if we didn’t allow that. How ever well educated and however well qualified our UK citizens are, we can’t operate in a bubble. Academia doesn’t do that, advancements in all sorts of areas don’t work like that. So we need that cross-fertilisation.
But we needed to do something about skills, regardless of Brexit. Look at the Farmer review [of the UK’s construction labour market] and you’ll see that the construction industry is in desperate need of skills training. I’m hoping Brexit won’t result in a precipitous fall in migration, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a decline. Therefore we do have to find ways to make those sectors more attractive to people, which comes back to my point about career paths. I’m sure people will take on the lower level hospitality jobs if they thought they were entry points into, say, management careers and other opportunities.
Q: The chief executive of the Association of Colleges has said he worked with both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson on their London Schools and Employment Board, which was largely a forerunner of your skills taskforce, but it didn’t achieve much. How can you do better and how soon?
A: Two years from now I would hope that we will have made a lot of headway on the strategy and an acceptance of that strategy by all the different players on the field. There should be greater confidence in the system. Absolute changes in the further education colleges might be less apparent at that point, because even if the government was able to fulfil the timetable for devolution, the funding doesn’t come until 2019/20. And even if it did start in 2019, we’re not about to suddenly rip up the way the colleges are funded and send them into a tailspin. We need employers to buy into this as well. We want them to take on people who go through the colleges and come out well trained. We also want them to come to the table with some of the training that they do, and do more of it.
It’s all going to have to be gradual. Things that have been in place for decades aren’t going to be changed in just a couple of years.
You can read more about the London Mayor’s Skills for Londoners taskforce here.