Work, Employment, Skills and Training: Where Next for Scotland?

Labour market issues have been given very little attention in the independence debate. So today’s launch of an ESRC funded research report on ‘Work, Employment, Skills and Training: Where Next for Scotland?’ is very welcome.

I was interviewed along with 67 other stakeholders as part of the research, so I was particularly interested in the report’s findings. The complexity of the issue is illustrated by the multi-level governance with the EU, UK and Scottish Government all having a role, or in some cases shared responsibility. Given the shocking levels of productivity in the UK, it is surprising that skills utilisation in particular has not been given more attention.

Education, training and skills is probably the field least impacted by independence, because most is already devolved and Scotland has a very different system from the rest of the UK and England in particular. Professor Ewart Keep highlighted the structural focus on youth unemployment in Scotland, while in England there is little more than hand wringing. Advice and guidance services have collapsed in England, although I would argue they have been devalued in Scotland with too greater reliance on web based services. College regionalisation has come with significant cuts and it is too soon to judge its efficacy. The research also showed something of a disconnect on workforce development, particularly in ‘unsexy’ sectors like retail and social care. What the Scottish approach does provide is an ability to think collectively, rather than everything being left to the vagaries of the market.

Welfare to work and employability has similar challenges to the rest of the UK, with the concentration of disadvantage in geographical areas and amongst young people. While there was some support for the principles of welfare reform, the impact was actually adding to the barriers to getting people into work – not just getting them off benefits. The pressure is simply handed down to local services. There was a clear consensus in Scotland that there are problems at the bottom end of the labour market that will not be solved with benefit sanctions.

The research highlighted the importance of linking employability and health, strengthening employer engagement and more evidence of what works. There is a need to join up fragmented UK and Scottish provision and labour markets – a strong argument in my view for devolving many of these services. Not just to Holyrood, but also down to local level – recognising the risk of fragmentation of service and the loss of economy of scale. There is also a debate about how to incentivise employers either through the tax system or regulation.

On employment and the workplace, the report sets out the challenges including low pay, gender segregation and economic growth. The strength of the report is the focus on creating good jobs through job quality and design – with an understanding that employees are a source of innovation. There may be less clarity about how to make this happen, but options include using government as an exemplar and the use of procurement.

There is limited capacity in HR and organisational development and a less than cohesive employer voice, essential if the proposed social partnership model is to work effectively. Employer concerns about greater regulation and partnership in the research were more pragmatic than ideological. However, the White Paper model also requires a different model of capitalism in Scotland and there is little indication that the Scottish Government is ready for that radical journey. While there may be insufficient action on these issues in Scotland, none of this has even reached the UK government agenda! The research found that debates on the workforce in Scotland occupy a very different ideological space.

One conclusion is that whatever the outcome of the vote, much of the Scottish direction of travel is already fixed and unlikely to change. As the report says, “the new model is now on the table”, even if the detailed road map is missing. The Mather Commission may fill in some of the gaps.  It therefore remains open to debate if the proposals in the White Paper or greater devolution will remove the remaining barriers to progressive change.