You can judge the state of the nation not just by what makes the news, but also by what doesn’t

Blane perrotton bw 2018

Ordinarily, the launch of a flagship education initiative by the government would generate a decent crop of headlines. But last month, when it announced – with as much fanfare as possible – the creation of a dozen institutes of technology across England, this passed almost completely unnoticed.

The 12 institutes, many of which will be based around existing colleges and universities, are to be centres of excellence for vocational training. Each will specialise in teaching the skills required by a particular industry – from manufacturing to transport and construction – and together they are intended to put vocational training on a par with university study.

However, on the day of the announcement, the front pages of the national newspapers were emblazoned with a picture of a black hole. For once this wasn’t a story about Britain’s post-Brexit future; instead, it was the first time one of these mysterious cosmic phenomena had been caught on camera. 

But if ever there were an illustration of how overlooked and ignored vocational skills have become, this was it. A series of in-depth studies have warned that by international standards England has low numbers of people trained in advanced vocational skills. 

At least the government is trying to make amends. The institutes of technology, while far from a panacea, are a step in the right direction. Next year the government plans to introduce a new technical qualification, the T level, which is pitched as a vocational equivalent to A levels.

Critics have dismissed these measures as insufficient, but there can be no overnight solution to Britain’s chronic skills shortage.

The skills crisis was years in the making and could take years to fix. A whole generation of school-leavers have been pushed towards university education rather than vocational training. While studying for a degree can be rewarding for many young people, it isn’t right for everyone – or for the country as a whole.

Construction, in particular, has been allowed to develop a real image problem, with many teenagers seeing it as dirty, dangerous and poorly paid. As a result, the number of young people coming into the industry has failed to keep pace with the numbers of those retiring or leaving it.

This net loss of talent has been accelerated by the first pangs of a so-called Brexodus. Concerns over what might happen after the UK leaves the EU, not to mention Britain’s slowing economy, have prompted EU-born workers to leave the UK at the fastest rate in years.

However, the latest act in the Brexit saga provides grounds for some cautious optimism on both fronts.

Firstly the threat of a Brexodus could be checked as the prospect of a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit subsides. With GDP defying expectations to rise by 0.3% in the three months to the end of February – growing faster than it did in the final quarter of 2018 – the economy is holding up surprisingly well.

Secondly, the delay to the Brexit process buys the government time to focus on other important issues. For three years, Brexit has served as a black hole, swallowing up Westminster’s energy and preventing progress on other priorities like solving the skills shortage.

Re-engaging with young people and showing that construction can provide not just a well-paid and rewarding career, but also a chance to make a difference to both the fabric and the future of UK plc, now needs to be top of the government’s to-do list.

The pause in the Brexit paralysis also offers an opportunity for us as an industry to make our case. Together we must grab the opportunity to reach out to schools and government, smashing the “hard hat, hi-vis” stereotype and encouraging more bright young people to consider a career in construction.

If we fail to act now, the skills crisis risks morphing into a black hole from which the industry may take a generation to escape.

Blane Perrotton, managing director at Naismiths