Forget new year’s resolutions and good intentions, our new columnist reveals the biggest challenge facing the UK economy in the 21st century

When Gordon Brown stood up to deliver his pre-Budget report last month, he surveyed a domestic economic landscape that must be the envy of most finance ministers in the world – and all his predecessors at 11 Downing Street. Inflation is low, interest rates are still historically low (even if they are showing an upward trend), unemployment is virtually non-existent and the country is engaged with a rapidly globalising world economy in a way that no other member of the G8 can match.

But there is one major obstacle looming for the UK in the century ahead. There are 7 million adults in this country who cannot read and write to the standard expected of an 11 year old, while half the kids who sit GCSEs are failing to get grade C or above in English and maths (and they’re the ones who actually take them!) This in an economy where vacancies for unskilled people are disappearing more quickly than England middle order batsmen.

The construction industry has always been at the forefront of providing skills training – nobody can hide inadequacy on a construction site. From training boards to modern apprenticeships, you set the pace. But no sector of our economy can ignore the need to raise its game. There are three main reasons for this:

• First, if by 2010 there are still employees in the UK without level 2 (equivalent to 5 A-C grades at GCSE) skills then, according to the chancellor’s adoption of the Leitch report on skills in his pre-Budget report last month, the “clunking fist” of regulation will strike. The employers of Britain are in the last chance saloon: train voluntarily or in three years’ time you will be made to. Imagine it – a morass of government-inspired red tape, a one-size-fits-all, box ticking, enterprise-stifling nightmare where trade unions think all their birthdays have come at once, where the process and the system take precedence over the result.

• Second, we live in a world where China wants your lunch and India wants your dinner. You might think that you are safe – after all, they can’t take your building site to Shenzhen. But your client, facing that threat every day or under the cosh to deliver more value for the tax payer every minute, will increasingly put the squeeze on you. You will have to get more productive, more adaptable and more innovative. And you won’t pull that off with people who are not just technically unskilled but devoid of the (wrongly named) soft skills – communication, punctuality, initiative, diligence.

• And finally, this fast changing, increasingly insecure world is frightening enough for people in good jobs and pleasant communities. Imagine being unskilled in the future world, where there are no jobs for people who can’t read, write or count, and where being IT literate will be the norm across towns in India, let alone the West Midlands. Suddenly, drugs, aggression and crime seem tempting and society gets one more member of the excluded, causing damage and spreading fear to everybody.

If a 12 year old can’t read, put them back in basic education classes until they damn well can

Training people, making them feel equipped to deal with this changed world, is not only good for business and good for a safer world, it’s also just the right thing to do. That’s why I have accepted the chancellor’s invitation to become the skills envoy. I am independent of all party politics, unpaid (thanks to Deloitte’s fabulous employability initiative) and hopeful of support from all parts of our society.

I will be campaigning to put skills at the forefront of people’s minds. Currently, 30% of employers don’t do any training at all – I want employers in both public and private sectors to pledge to get all employees to level 2 by 2010.

Yes, secondary schools must do better. Employers and training colleges can’t do this on their own. If 12 year olds can’t read, put them back in basic education classes until they damn well can.

And yes, the government must help pay for the training, with grants, tax breaks and facilitation.

But the country’s economic success is down to its businesses, and you in the construction industry are once again on the front line of the battle. Maintain your leadership, rootout the malingerers. Frankly, please do your bit – again.

If we pull this off, then UK plc will have a great century. If we don’t, then our kids will never forgive us.