The world has been plunged into a war against COVID-19. Like all wars, after the devastation, there is a period of re-assessment and rebuilding. Our recent webinar, The government’s Jobs Plan in the digital economy, examined how the UK is getting back to work. Johanna Hamilton AMBCS reports.

It’s been a tough year. According to the World Health Organization, to date, there have been nearly 12m cases of COVID-19; of that, 731,000 lives have been lost - including 46,574 in the UK.

A virus, unheard of a year ago, has swept through every corner of our devolved nation and has made our economy stall to a level unparalleled since the 1970s. As consumer confidence falls and unemployment doubles, the government has put together a £160bn package of measures to stimulate the economy.

Discussing the government’s Plan for Jobs announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak and chairing the seminar, was Rebecca George OBE FBCS, President of BCS and managing partner at Deloitte. Joining her in debate were:

Keeping the discussion moving smoothly, Rebecca George introduced the government’s jobs plan that is coming into force in August 2020.

The outline plan promises £30bn of investment, (including incentives to retain staff that have previously been furloughed when the scheme comes to an end in October) as well as funding for Kickstart, traineeships, apprenticeships and T-levels.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency, part of the department for education (ESFA) is pivotal to making sure that standards line up, that pressures are assessed on both training providers and the traineeships and that the subsequent reforms are good for young people and relevant to the industry.

What is the jobs plan trying to achieve?

While there are unemployment statistics, these rarely reflect the true devastation of COVID-19 on the jobs market. Young workers on zero-hour contracts will not be added to the figures, nor will the recently redundant who have yet to negotiate the labyrinth of claiming benefits. The government, obviously, wants to keep people employed and protect the economy from further damage. It also wants to create a workforce fit for the future.

Picking up this mantle, Dr Bill Mitchell introduced the economic need for the jobs plan: ‘What’s been going on with GDP? We’ve fallen off a cliff. But it’s not that straight forward: we’ve fallen off a cliff because the government has basically had to stop the economy due to coronavirus. How much of that is real? How much of that is going to recover? And, how quickly is that going to recover?

Bill went on to inform the panel of the recent findings of the BCS IT Leaders report, looking back over the last six months of change and what is needed, looking ahead to economic recovery in the face of rapid change.

Digitisation creating resilience

It is no secret that the companies who have suffered during lockdown are the ones where physical contact is essential - manufacturing or leisure - or the ones that hadn’t embraced digitalisation. Resilience, getting back to productivity as soon as possible is the only way to survive.

As UK businesses emerge from the pandemic, companies that were impacted by the virus will continue to need considerable government support, especially SMEs. The government’s jobs plan is an opportunity for UK businesses to rebuild and recover from its recent financial losses.

A three-pronged attack has been formed to protect, support and create decent jobs, as it is essential that workers’ skills are not lost as the UK surfaces from furlough and growing unemployment.

Aside from the disruption of the pandemic, the UK has been presented with an opportunity to embrace a whole new digitally centred way of working. Using government incentives for employment and further training will ensure that, rather than accepting the GDP freefall, we will come back as a nation, stronger, better educated, better equipped and more resilient than ever before.

Bill continued, ‘the top-level technologies companies are looking at to deliver efficiencies are cyber security, cloud, IT governance, automation and the ‘as a service’ model. Those are the things that will drive innovation and cutting costs.’

How to future proof

‘One of the biggest problems in transformation,’ said Bill, ‘is the lack of people. Not just skilled people at the coal face, but right up to director level. That is one of the major reasons why companies can’t implement a digital transformation.’

He went on to say that IT upskilling it isn’t just a case of growth, ‘it’s a case of survival.’ While many of the workforce are worried their jobs will be taken by AI, automation and algorithms, the good news is, upskilling will protect your career survival. Build a digital-first company.

You need interdisciplinary teams. You need to talk to other companies who have already taken the digital transformation plunge. Bill recommends to ‘join a community of practice, such as BCS. Find them. Join them. Learn from them.

‘Lastly, we are in a unique moment in government. Right now, government ministers desperately want to hear from us. They want to know how to give us the right support. Join in and get your voice heard.’

What the additional investment means

High value courses for school and college leavers

£101m for the 2020-21 academic year to give all 18-19 year olds in England and the opportunity to study targeted, high-value Level 2 and 3 courses when there are not employment opportunities.

New funding for National Careers Service

£32m for the next two years to support the National Careers Service, so 269,000 more people in England can receive personal advice, training and work support. Expanded youth offer Extended support by DWP for jobseekers aged 18-24 in the ‘intensive work search group’ in Universal Credit.

Enhanced work search support

£895m to enhance work search support and a doubling of the number of job coaches at Jobcentre Plus before the end of this financial year across the UK.

Tailored support for vocational training

£17m to triple the number of sector-based work academy placements in England to provide more vocational training, help for interviews and to gain additional skills for jobs available in the local area.

Employer incentives

  • A one-off payment of £1,000 to UK employers for every furloughed employee who remains continuously employed through to the end of January 2021.
  • Wages paid for 16-24-year olds on Universal Credits, who are on a 26-week kickstart placement.
  • £1,000 to hire someone on a traineeship programme.
  • £2,000 to hire new apprentices aged 16-24 and £1,500 for apprentices aged 25 and over until January.

Webinar overview

Part one: The problem

Laura Jane Rawlings introduced herself and set the scene for the need for training and support for young people. She said: ‘We are dealing with a generation of young people who have been completely displaced from everything they thought to be true. We are seeing that news come through thick and fast with A-level results and the anxiety and the challenges [that’s] presenting.

‘We are seeing young people who are living in homes where they aren’t able to access technology because of digital poverty and they have lost out on masses of education… We are also seeing children living in crisis. The number of calls to Childline and mental health charities have all doubled since young people have been in lockdown. This situation couldn’t be more challenging for [16-24 year olds].’

While there has been a lot of protection for existing employees with the furlough scheme, there have been few opportunities for young people embarking on their career.

Rebecca Denham said: ‘The last few months before COVID hit, we had already started doing a lot of work with employers, providers, job centres and careers advisers as well. It was really to understand how we could expand and reform the [apprenticeship] programme. This was propelled when COVID hit.

‘It was right that the chancellor wanted to focus on traineeships as one of his priorities, to be able to start supporting people back into employment.’

There is a need to increase apprenticeship opportunities and the jobs plan incentivises companies to take on trainees of different sorts, but during this dark economic period, where companies are struggling, will they really be receptive to adding to the payroll? And new talent doesn’t just fall between the ages of 16-24. Is there anything else that needs to be considered for workers who are not of the millennial generation, who desperately need to reskill?

How and where will we learn?

We also need to consider how brilliant young people will join the workforce from their bedrooms. How do they learn to become professional? How do they learn from their peers, if they can’t have that proximity?

Laura Jane Rawlings said: ‘Working from a bedroom or working from a lounge with parents. Trying to move and avoid obstructing them is really difficult with mental health and wellbeing.

‘There are digital and connectivity issues, too, because they don’t necessarily have the right bandwidth... I worry about some of our businesses talking about never returning to the office, because it will rule out some really brilliant, talented young people who just aren’t ready to work from home full time.

‘There is just training you can’t do digitally. It has to be face to face, in a welcoming and supportive environment for young people.’

Rebecca George agreed: ‘In my experience, there is some work that is better done with other people in the same room. Many young people, or people in their early careers want to be in the same room as their more senior leaders, because that’s how they learn.’

Positive change

Will there be changes in how we learn? Will there be blended placements, with time at work and time learning remotely? Although cautious, the panel remained largely optimistic that this period of unprecedented flux and uncertainty would bring positive change.

Jonathan Mitchell said: ‘There will be an enormous temptation over the coming months to roll back, to change reform, or to head off in a different direction. And sometimes it will feel like the right thing to do – it may even be the right thing to do.

‘It’s helpful for us to bear in mind that an enormous amount has been achieved in the last few years and it’s not work that has been finished. We are on a trajectory here and there will be lots still to do.’

Part two: Attracting new talent

How do we make job descriptions more dynamic and inspirational? What is an IS Business Analyst? Or the difference between a Data Analyst and a Data Scientist?

Bill Mitchell said: ‘Imagine what would happen if Manchester United released all the data they had, say from five years ago, on all of their footballers, their training and their performance. And they explained how they used data analysis to choose the first team in the premier league. I think you would soon find a shed load of young boys desperate to become data analysts.’

While we need to encourage the young to see value in the new occupations, roles can seem a little nebulous. We need to show that this is a starting point and not a destination. We can move sideways and diagonally in our careers. This is an opportunity to gather transferrable skills.

How do you attract the cream of the crop to your company? Do you have to be a member of the Fortune 50? Be Google or Apple? OR is it more important to have a good culture that is open, honest, welcoming, and inclusive?

Jessica Holt said: ‘Talent attraction needs to be quite expansive. If you look at an orange and all the different segments that make that up, there are a number of different ways that individual groups will be attracted to an organisation. It could be around their culture or their social responsibility. It’s understanding where those groups sit and how to engage them into taking a further look.’

Looking ahead

Throughout the many questions, one thing is definite and that is that we have an uncertain few years ahead. However, looking beyond what we don’t know, we can see a path to what we want.

Where traineeships work really well is where training providers, employers, local authorities and job centres work in collaboration and understand local demand and supply, job opportunities and the local skills need. Having a pipeline and building from the bottom up, ESFA is looking at how they build on a collaborative and regional approach.

Post COVID-19, we will need to retrain. Train for new careers. Prepare for careers that have not yet begun. Our certification can’t stay still, our ways to deliver examinations have and will continue to change.

The qualifications need to be fit for purpose: our qualification structure was created, literally, in the steam age. Training and the recognition of skills and certification are all areas that are ripe for change. Students are looking for real value for money.

Employers may need different skills but, ultimately, most are having the same experience and share similar goals. They will need guidance from bodies that welcome the sharing of ideas and can lobby government for change, like BCS.

Jonathan Mitchell said: ‘Job roles should have purpose and feel they get you somewhere, creating pathways into careers ready for the future. Core competencies are rapidly evolving not just in apprenticeships, all the other routes, T-Levels, Higher Level Qualifications and traineeships are linked to occupational standards. We need organisations like BCS to come together to set the strategies, so we all move in the same direction.

‘Most jobs contain digital skills, following COVID even more so. IfATE has done a fair bit of work building on the Essential Digital Skills Framework, putting together a bank of knowledge skills and behaviours to provide as a stimulus to trailblazer groups to ensure digital skills are built into occupational standards using the same language.  Further information will be published soon making it easier for employers and providers to deliver transferable skills in T-levels, traineeships and apprenticeships.’

Raising standards

We need to raise the standard. We need to acknowledge the public sector contribution to economic recovery. The government jobs plan offers an opportunity, but it’s up to private and public sectors to work together to support young people into traineeships. We must build on a collaborative approach.

The new T-levels will offer young people training with industry placements. A modern day ‘sandwich course’ that their parents’ generation will recognise. Apprenticeships will continue to offer learners paid employment at all levels while they train, often with a day release.

In terms of employee incentives, the new job plan is centred around getting the 1m+ people aged 16-24 into full time training or work. This isn’t just a message to the employers. School leavers receiving their exam results now, can look at their options in terms of work and training. Yes, academic knowledge is good, but experience is essential.

Rebecca Denham said: ‘We will be using our comms channels through amazing apprenticeships, looking at options around including vacancies in newsletters that go out for teachers and parents. And, we’re working on social media plans as well during the [exam] results period… to get more social content pushed out to individuals through DfE and DfSE channels, including the National Careers Service. We do have the redundancy support service there also, to help redundant apprentices.’

Accessibility

There are bursaries available for those with disabilities and neurodiversity, which could be especially valuable to IT companies looking for particular talent.

Traineeships have been introduced, typically for young people who have additional needs or a lower starting point. It is a rewarding programme to support young people in the community to enjoy better employment opportunities to move into a sustainable job or even an apprenticeship, who might otherwise become Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET). Recognising this challenge, the ESFA have introduce new reforms to the programme to extend the programme to 12 months maximum rather than 6 months.

Rebecca George said: ‘I have a special interest in people with neurodiverse ability, because it happens that people with those capabilities are extremely well-suited to the IT sector. So, I would be extremely pleased if we could see more traineeships directed at people with neurodiverse capability in the IT sector.’

For an older population who want to get back to work, the kickstart programme can offer training and reskilling courses from six weeks to six months. There is also a renewed level of support for job seekers with job coaching, careers advice and funding to make a change. This is an opportunity to move forward into a new direction. All are welcome. There is no limit to age with apprenticeships.