The key learning from the Reading work has been the power and potential of locally relevant data (as opposed to broad UK data) to create a shared understanding of the challenge and stimulate joint action.
In early 2020, the Principal of New Directions College, Reading Borough Council’s adult and community learning service, decided to begin building a broad partnership focused on the learning needs of local communities as we enter a decade in which many people who hold Level 2 qualifications will find it ever-harder to find work. This economic upheaval will be brought about largely by the automation of human roles through robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), disproportionately disadvantaging people with low qualifications. The Principal saw this as a ‘Level 2 timebomb’ which could leave behind a significant proportion of the local population in an economy mostly known for being hi-tech, high value, and high skilled.
The partners identified as having a shared interest in this issue were the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP, the local DWP partnerships team, Reading’s independent regeneration company, and local authority economic development and skills specialists from Wokingham, Bracknell Forrest and West Berkshire.
Community Learning and Skills has a long track record of supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our communities enabling both positive economic and societal outcomes. Whilst our services are separate, we recognise that we have a collective responsibility to deploy the Adult Education Budget resources effectively to help ensure that the digital divide is not widened by the impact of technology.
Principal, New Directions College, Reading
One of the biggest challenges that needed to be addressed was integrating decision making around adult and community learning, with other local decision-making around policy and delivery within and between local authority areas. This is in part due to the way central government funds adult and community learning which disincentivises collaboration. For instance, an adult and community learning team in one local authority area will often be working with only minimal co-ordination with their peers in other parts of the same economic area (in this case the Thames Valley). This risks missing strategic collaboration opportunities for example, the gathering of insight into the digital skills needs of employers. Locally, they wanted to change this.
In addition, despite having significant socioeconomic inequality, Reading and many other parts of the Thames Valley are often seen locally and nationally as affluent and high-skilled. This lack of a ‘two-worlds’ narrative, of need alongside relative wealth, (which underpins approaches in many other areas of the South East), is a further hurdle to tackling a low qualification level.
The approach they are taking
In March 2020 as part of LGA’s place based employment and skills support programme, the Principal of New Directions convened a roundtable of key partners to consider a detailed evidence base (prepared by Shared Intelligence) detailing the Level 2 challenge in terms of the numbers of human job roles across the Berkshire Thames Valley area which are likely to be lost to automation.
This showed that in Reading alone there are 29,127 at-risk jobs, with the highest numbers among wholesale and retail, and service sector employers. The data also showed that in terms of individual workers, sales and retail assistants were at particular risk, as were all workers for whom GCSE level was their highest qualification.
The roundtable discussion provided time and space for partners to agree on the importance of the Level 2 issue and share details of the extent of the challenge and individual initiatives already underway. All those present agreed far more focused and concerted effort would be needed. As a result of the roundtable the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP are now planning a follow-up discussion to ensure adult and community learning is directly interwoven with the Berkshire Local Industrial Strategy and Skills Priority Statement – key documents which guide investment. Part of this will include creating a stronger narrative about the inequalities that exist in the Thames Valley especially around skills, and the 29,000 jobs at-risk due to automation. DWP also agreed to look at how the National Retraining Scheme will be implemented locally to ensure this too reflects the Level 2 challenge, in particular individuals with complex needs.
Partners began exploring issues around digital skills and whether the adult learning offer is keeping pace with what employers require. For example, one borough knew of an example where someone had taken a job at Ikea but quit soon after because they could not use a tablet device (a key requirement of that role). Partners had begun to question the relevance of a ‘digital skills’ adult learning offer based around Microsoft Office products, in the context of current workplace technology needs.
They also considered the challenge of obtaining sufficiently detailed insight from local employers about their evolving digital needs. Partners were also able to share examples where the skills offer was pre-empting employer needs, e.g. around electric vehicle maintenance and personal social care skills for working in a telehealth environment.
The key learning from the Reading work has been the power and potential of locally relevant data (as opposed to broad UK data) to create a shared understanding of the challenge and stimulate joint action. Coming together around a particular challenge to discuss local solutions has been central to developing this understanding.
The Reading example also serves to share learning among others about the need to connect sub-regional policy and strategy (in this case those led by the LEP) with locally determined strategies. The two were not contradictory but connecting them will enable strategy to be delivered through a greater number of local levers and agents.