This morning the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee released its report on the “Digital Skills Crisis” This afternoon the House of Lords debated the government response to its “Make or Break” report last year . Last week the European Commission published a proposal for a Skills Guarantee . Meanwhile BIS is ploughing ahead with byzantine routines for a return to the type of training grant and levy scheme that was scrapped (for good reason) in 1980s. Unfortunately though dead, the idea of grants and levies, job creation schemes for bureaucrats, will not stay buried. In 1992 I helped kill an attempt to revive it with a Bow Group Paper on the theme of “Training for jobs not just jobs for trainers”. The processes proposed by BIS to fund “approved “training organisations to deliver apprenticeships which meet criteria dictated by officials not employers, make the average European “initiative” look like a model of efficiency.
I therefore applaud the recommendations by the Select Committee that
- “Government needs to work with closely with employers, higher education institutions and schools to understand the apprenticeship marketplace, to ensure that education aligns with industry’s requirements, and that apprenticeships are delivered in a flexible way to adjust to future changes in the digital sector” (Para 54)
- “Government should emphasise the need for more digital skills components in all apprenticeships … ” (Para 55)
- “should review its Trailblazer initiative, making it more streamlined and accessible … simplifying the scheme’s processes” (Para 56) and
- “… make it easier for industry to partner with universities and colleges to support student teaching … work placements … allow the cost to be written off against the Apprenticeship Levy contributions” (Para 57)
I am less happy with the recommendation that “The Government should review the qualifying requirements for the new IT roles added to the Tier 2 visa “shortage occupation list” , making it easier and more flexible for SMEs to recruit top talent from outside the EU” (Para 30). The European Commission proposal for a “Skills Guarantee” to help adults stuck in low paid jobs is more forward looking but the Committee’s recommendation is perhaps inevitable, given the 50 years of policy failure summarised in my evidence to the House of Lords report (see pages 1057 – 70) and referred to in my blog entry, describing the need to break out of groundhog day, when that report was first published.
“The crisis is over. The patient is dead” .
We failed to use the past “crises” as a catalyst for change. Things came to a head during the run up to Y2K and the “false start” of the transition to mass-market, Internet-based on-line systems. My 2001 IT Skills Trends report was about surviving the bursting of the dotcom bubble and preparing for the skills that would be in shortest supply when recovery came – in 2005 – 6. But that recovery did not come. By 2006 demand and salaries for those jobs which could easily be moved off-shore had stagnated. Much of the software and support industry had come to be staffed by a mix of overseas systems development and imported contract labour. We were facing the consequences of our inability to retrain our existing workforce, let alone our failure to educate and train our children. I stopped writing the reports. They had become too depressing and the only ones taking action were those who helped write them.
An Apprentice Levy without a credible, let alone efficient, Grant process
Today we have a curate’s egg wth unemployed computer science graduates in parallel with unprecedented shortages of competent and trustworthy recruits for Fintech and Security roles and another exercise to dig up the dodo of levies and grants – this time with the grants ring-fenced to meet the costs of “approved providers”, officials trying to dictate the requirements that employers are allowed to have and different processes for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last week I attended a briefing session for employers. Those serious about training their future employees with the skills they will need were already looking at how to bypass the system, writing off the levy as a payroll tax on those jobs they could not realistically subcontract or move out of the UK. It was, as the Commons Select Committee has pointed out, not only unfit for purpose when it comes to the needs of SMEs (Para 30), it looks unlikely to meet the evolving needs of those large firms who already train their own and/or those in their supply chains.
But markets do not stand still. The Commons Select Committee call for the annual “dynamic mapping” of initiatives against demand so as to create a long term mechanism for adjusting the strategy (Para 29) is therefore particularly welcome.
The recommendation that Government should commit “to work with the Tech Partnership to develop industry-led, vocationally focused careers advice …” (Para 43) is also most welcome, but this should be extended to cover school-leavers. We can no longer afford to peddle the immoral fantasy that the majority of our children will benefit from starting their working lives saddled with student debt after spending three years to become less employable than if they had been paid to do a graduate level apprenticeship. In 1982, in “Learning for Change” I attacked both
- “the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa, At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures” and
- our confusion of “education” with taxpayer subsidy for the middle class ritual of kicking the fledglings from the nest.
The many recommendations of the Select Committee with regard to computing schools in schools are worthy but the most important boring is Paragraph 83 where it recommends working with the Tech Partnership “to raise the ambition for, and coverage of, industry led digital training, and to make it easier for business of all sizes to get involved“.
The need to “break open the educational ghettos” has been a key message since 1982, when PITCOM organised for relays of school-children (from 30 schools) to man an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Room of the House of Commons (26 computer systems, up to 14 running at any one time running off three power points, at a time when Parliament had no facilities for schools visits!). That exhibition was attended by 120 MPs: one returning six times to get a group doing Economics A Level to run variations on the Treasury Economic Model – hence my long-standing support for Donald Michie’s idea that MPs should be able to simulate the effect of the legislation, including amendments, which they are expected to approve.
That was over 30 years ago. It is therefore particularly sad that the same messages have to be repeated as though they are new. The reason is linked to the prevalence, evident in paragraphs 70 – 76, that teachers (whether in School, College, University or Industrial Training Centre) have to be expert in IT in order to educate their pupils/students. If that is correct then there is no solution – other than to rely on those (in other parts of the world) who use their limited supply of skilled educators to supervise the delivery of blended learning (mix of packaged learning materials, personal contact and supervised work experience) by mixed teams of assistants and subject experts: which is what successful digital “informal learning” groups (para 70 – 77) as well as enlightened employers, have been doing since before school computing curricula or computer science degrees were invented. Hence some of the recommendations in my own submission to the Select Committee
The Shareholder Backlash
Most digerati appear to be in a state of denial over the scale and nature of the damage being done by the abuse of social media. It is fuelling family breakdown, mental problems and violence, particularly in our inner cities. They may, however, be correct in saying that current political and regulatory efforts to address the problem will not achieve their objectives. The delay in implementing UK legislation on Age Checking, in the face of opposition from those whose business models are based on intrusive mass data collection as well as those promoting anonymous access services, shows how easy it is to mislead officials and politicians over the impact of proposals that help enhance, not invade, the privacy of the vast majority of users, particularly the most vulnerable.
Advertisers and, more importantly shareholders, are not so easily fooled.
The dips in share price last year, when luxury brands began pulling adverts which might appear alongside ISIS videos and risk their Middle Eastern sales, were short lived. So too were the dips which accompanied the original revelations of scale and nature of the fake news/click bait “industry”. In both cases assurances of the “technical” measures being introduced appear to have been sufficient.
Not so the 20% fall in Facebook share price as complaints grew that family friendly content and adverts were being used to promote child abuse and drug gang messages and not “just” fake news about politicians and celebrities. Assurances of action have, so far, proved insufficient – in the face of evidence of practical ineffectiveness, particularly with regard to addressing abuse over its platforms for teenagers, such as Instagram and Whatsapp.
The arguments received a very public twist when the DCMS Select Committee used forgotten powers to seize evidence of “intra-US misbehaviour” for use in its report on Disinformation and Fake News . This report refers to the Ledger of Harms produced by the Centre for Humane Technology: “loss of attention, mental health issues, confusions over personal relationships, risks to our democracies and issues affecting children” but focussed on the harms supposedly caused by targeted misinformation in support of political campaigning. Hence the committee’s proposal for a new regulatory category for organisations that are neither “Platforms” nor “Publishers”. But can organisations which claim ownership of the content placed on them (including records of usage and location) and analyse this, sometimes in real time, to target advertising, really claim “Innocent carrier” status at all, let alone avoid responsibility under common law and tort for failing to take rapid action to enforce their terms and conditions when warned that abuse is leading to harm, suffering and death, whether on the streets or in the bedroom.
The Twitter share price has been hit harder, now down over 30%, as it becomes a medium of choice for some of more prolific abusers, whether of truth or of the vulnerable. It has yet to find a way of reassuring advertisers that their brands are not at risk.
The Google (Alphabet) share price has been more resilient, down barely 10%. So far its efforts to monitor abuse have seemed more credible to Advertisers. But it remains to be seen how it will respond to the loss of well- known clients for You Tube advertising. In particular will it be able to reassure AT&T. We can expect it to step up efforts to use technology to identify and remove abusers. Will it feel a need to go further and take a lead in helping drain the swamp, including by organising systematic co-operation to help advertisers prevent their images from being contaminated by indiscriminating pay-per-click automated adtech placement algorithms? Will it feel the need to go further, in co-operation with AT&T and Verizon, to restore faith in the safety and security of the on-line world. If so, where will that leave the current “division of labour” between the Internet Community and the ITU.
The Public Backlash
Meanwhile parents, teachers, picking up on what they know about the hidden fears of their children and pupils, are now well aware that the on-line world needs at least as much supervision as physical playgrounds and streets. We have long had anecdotal evidence of the scale of parental concerns over some of the apps being used to stalk their children . We are now seeing evidence on the fears felt by children and what they would like to see in response.
We can also see the debate over on-line harms spilling over into the way social media are being used to create a climate of violence and fear on our the street. We are also beginning to see constructive thought on how the processes actually work and what we might do in response.
Last Saturday I attended a meeting for local residents on violence reduction. It was attended by the constituency MP, the GLA member and three cabinet members from the Council (in this case Lambeth) . It was standing room only.I had expected some of what I heard. I did not, however, expect the extent to which social media were blamed for contributing to the problems and the anger at their ongoing failure to use their profits to become part of the solution. Perhaps the saddest contribution came from a teacher who was describing the effect on family life. She mentioned a contribution to an early years discussion on what “what do you want to be when you grow up”: – “I want to be an I-Phone, so my Mummy will speak to me.”
At the teenage level the use of social media to video and brag about violence and/or issue challenges is said to be a major factor in the escalation of a local dispute into open warfare. It is also said to be impossible to get rapid and effective action taken by those operating the relevant “platforms”. The resultant bitterness against those who make so much profit while driving local shops out of business and denying responsibility for their actions has to be seen to be believed.
I had not previously appreciated how much of this bitterness is linked directly to the systematic use of social media by drug gangs (not just ISIS or pederast rings) to groom their audiences with the mix of fear and exhilaration that will promote their product at eh same time as helping them control their neighbourhoods and supply chains.
In the physical world you can call Crimestoppers and report where and when the action is happening. What happens when you try to report abusive content to Facebook, Google or Twitter?
The social media giants claim they are innocent carriers but their claims to own the data posted by their users and analyse transmissions to facilitate precisely targeted advertising indicate clearly that they are publishers (and more) – with all the duties entailed.
It appears to be only a matter of time before crowd-funded class actions on behalf of the victims of bullying, abuse and violence cause them to change their business models.
So what could/should be done by those who wish to expedite that process without destroying the undoubted benefits from advertising funded open internet access?
Pre-empting the damage the backlash could cause
1) Implement Age Verification to PAS 1296
The first and most obvious action is to expedite implementation of the UK Age Verification legislation passed two years ago . The members of the new Age Verification Providers Association spent £millions to get effective systems operational in time for the original deadline. More-over the technologies they had in mind to help with enforcement (based on those already used by Hollywood and the Music Industry for copyright enforcement) could also be used to address other forms of on-line harm.
The reasons for delay do not stand up to examination and are doing serious harm to UK-based business. They are in part based on misinformation by those who do not want to see the spread of effective, low cost, anonymised access technologies. The access provider or retailer need only ever know the name and id number and/or biometric of the individual. In some cases even the service provider knows only the age or other relevant attributes (e.g. a membership or security clearance). Everything else is stored behind further layers of one-way encryption on the files of the third parties e.g. health, education or financial services providers who provide only extracts. Such a privacy-centric capproach fits, however, neither mass surveillance nor big data agendas. Hence the publicity for misinformation based on services which do not use data minimised implementations of PAS 1296 (on its way to becoming a global standard).
Early, well publicised, adoption of such implementations, audited against the PAS, without waiting for the legislation to be implemented, is not only a good way of demonstrating family friendly credentials, it can also greatly reduce your potential liabilities under GDPR if allied to an overall data minimisation strategy.
2) Work with Law Enforcement, Crimestoppers and Child/Mental Health/Victim Support and Welfare Charities on expedited and/or automated/collated reporting and response processes
The current confusopoly of victim-hostile, labour-intensive reporting processes is unfit for the internet age. Those involved have neither the expertise nor the resources to sort the situation. That will require action by those who want the rest of society to have confidence in the safety of themselves, their children and their grandparents in the on-line world. More-over, until we have created processes for effective co-operation between industry and law enforcement, the responses will have to come from industry under a mix of civil and contract law.
That raises the questions of whether the organisation is more concerned over avoiding legal liability or enhancing consumer confidence (and profitability). That will divide industry between those whose “conscience” and/or “appetite for risk” are driven by the legal department or the finance director.
3) Find ways of using your expertise and resources to plug the gaps of those in Law Enforcement.
It is now over a decade since the EURIM-IPPR study into Partnership Policing for the Information Society identified that law enforcement would never have more than a fraction of the resources and expertise necessary to policing the on-line world. The need was for processes to enable the police to draw on those of industry – including (but not just) as warranted special constables.
Since then there has been little, if any, progress in implementing the recommendations. We may actually have gone backwards. The current Metropolitan Police criteria for Special Constables appear to preclude almost all those professionally involved with Information Security.
It is unclear whether change requires primary or secondary legislation or this a local requirement but action should be a core part of the National Cybersecurity Skills Strategy
as well as of any strategy to address the on-line safety of the rest of society.
I re-read the “Initial National Cyber Security Skills Strategy: increasing the UK’s Cyber Security Capability” after attending the first of their discussion meetings. The meeting illustrated the difficulty of the task the DCMS team will have reconciling the need of MoD and GCHQ for patriotic cyberwarriors and the need of the rest of us for the skills to protect ourselves and our customers at the same time as working with law enforcement to identify on-line predators and use a mix of civil and criminal law to remove and/or deter them, wherever they may be.
The skill sets do overlap.
But do they overlap sufficiently for a single professional body?
Almost certainly not.
Hence the reason the creation of a Cybersecurity Council makes such good sense.
But the Council will not meet the needs of UK plc if Government support is constrained to fit the undoubted needs to grow our own indigenous cybersecurity skills base while neglecting the need for the City of London, as the world’s premier financial services and global trading hub, to have the cross-cultural and jurisdictional skills base needed by a global hub for security audit and investigatory co-operation. And what about the need to protect the rest of society from script-kiddies, on-line bullies, pederasts and those using social media to promote, for example, a gang-driven, drug-fuelled teenage subculture.
The strategy also neglects the skills needed to build and maintain a resilient and secure digital infrastructure for a society that is critically dependent on 24 by 7 on-line service. The failure to regulate UK telecoms (including internet services) as part of the critical national infrastructure, with all that implies (including for the relevant skills), appear to undermine the rest of the strategy.
I strongly recommend reading the strategy and thinking long and hard before answering the questions. And remember the deadline – March 1st.
Below I summarise the points I am thinking of making in my own submission.
Perhaps most controversial for many readers is that the number of genuine cybersecurity professionals, capable of a UK eyes only security clearance, needed is probably only about 10% of the numbers being bandied about by those making business plans for new professional bodies. Instead we need are very much larger numbers of competent technicians with skills that cross professional boundaries.
Moreover, if we really do want to a world leader, we should look at how to be at the heart of setting and auditing global skills standards and co-operating wholeheartedly with non-Nato countries educating and training those who will help secure the on-line world against all-comers (including nation state actors, “ours” as well as “theirs”). The latter also entails fixing the vulnerabilities that are there because nation state actors want them to be there.
Hence my sympathy for DCMS officials expected to reconcile the irreconcilable – or rather produce a globally acceptable and evolving fudge machine. I am mindful of how, nearly a decade ago, office also from across Whitehall came together to block the joined-up Home Office e-Crime strategy on which I and others had spend so much time and money.
My points below follow the structure of the Consultation paper.
The Strategic Context – Page 15
I found the analysis of the size of the cybersecurity skills gap (page 12) very odd. I then looked at the background report “Understanding the UK Cybersecurity skills labour market” and understood why. It repeats an error common to almost all reports on UK IT skills and demand. It fails to appreciate that 95% of the 1.4m UK businesses with employees have fewer than 50 staff, none of them full time on IT support, let alone cybersecurity. The responses to the survey come from those remaining other 5%, plus the Cyber consultancy community. The statement that 710,000 business and 107,000 charities have a “technical skills” gap is then used to produce numbers requiring differing different types of skill. The UK has barely 250,000 businesses with more than 10 staff and only 42,000 with more than 50. It has barely 34,000 charities with more than £100,000 of income and only 11,600 with more than £500,000. Most businesses with under 50 staff use packaged and/or outsourced IT products, services and support. They have no-one with serious in-house IT, let alone cybersecurity expertise. Only businesses with more than 250 staff (7,500) and charities with more than £5 million turnover (2,200) are likely to have any in-house cybersecurity expertise, as opposed to providing one of more members of staff with the training to know when to call in an “expert” and, hopefully, a call off contract with a reputable “expert.
There is then the question of how many of the “experts” merit the term “professional” and how many are best described as “technicians”, competent to use the semi-automated tools which can be mastered in the 3 – 4 month modular training programmes which produce “consultants” capable of being billed to HMG at £2-300 per day. To the numbers quoted should be added those not on degree courses or IfA “approved” apprenticeships. One commercial training provider appears to have a throughput of over 3,000 students a year (counting up the numbers of the courses it is contracted to run for major aerospace and defence contractors and/or cloud computing suppliers). Meanwhile the big four accounting firms are believed to each be training several hundred a year via the “cyber-academies” they run with the help of well-known Universities. BT has claimed that it has 3,000 in its cybersecurity operations and has said it is training 300 “apprentices” a year and looking to recruit a further 300 a year from outside to replace turnover.
Meanwhile the financial services industry has largely outsourced/co-sourced technical cybersecurity while embedding cybersecurity modules within mainstream disciplines from risk management to identity and access control (including know your customer), fraud prevention and asset recovery. ISACA (over 150,000 members world-wide, over 15,000 in the UK) is probably the main professional bodies for those “auditing” cybersecurity in the financial services sector. Its “body of knowledge” appears to be far wider than that envisaged, because its members already have to audit IoT devices integral to on-line, interactive payment, shipping and maintenance services around the world
The main gap in the analysis is, however, the skills to build and maintain the nations digital communications infrastructure. There is talk of societies increasing dependency on connected devices and services but not on the need to treat digital communication as part of the critical national infrastructure – with the implications that would have for regulated standards for quality of service, resilience and response times and for independent certification of the competence of those maintaining the necessary inter-operable networks with mutual standby.
That leads to the question of the skills to address the responsibilities of Internet Service Providers, including “Over the Top” providers, given that their use of algorithms to fine tune service provision of behalf of advertisers means that “innocent carrier” status no longer applies. They look set to face a perfect storm of class actions under civil and/or common law for the consequences (suicide and murder let alone lesser injuries and suffering) of their failure to take “reasonable action” to enforce their terms and conditions
The National Response – Our Mission
There is a need to unpack the needs for UK or NATO “eyes only” skills for national defence and cyberwarfare purposes from those of the financial services sector where UK-based organisations may be part of the critical national infrastructures (including payment services and sovereign wealth management) of Governments around the world.
One of the best ways of ensuring that the UK has world class skills is to maintain and foster the position of City of London as the neutral base for auditing and quality controlling the cybersecurity of the rest of the world – even if that means operating, at least in some respects, at arms-length from the City of Westminster. That relationship needs to open and honest, including the means for handling the inevitable conflicts, for it to be open trusted and trustworthy.
A Structured and Trusted Profession
Trust is earned. Much will depend on the nature of the “delivery lead”. It needs to be a mutual, jointly owned by a balanced mixed of UK and International professional bodies and trade association with Government contributing as a major user/employer of skills. It also need to move rapidly towards the creation of a de facto “certificate to practice” regime, with members maintaining inter-operable (common formats/definitions) log books of training, updating and performance, validated by course/assessment providers, employers and customers.
A Vibrant Education and Training Ecosystem
The “demystification” of cybersecurity careers is much easier said than done, given that these are probably evolving faster than the attempts to describe them.
It is probably easier to:
• describe the various roles,
• the attitudes, aptitudes, knowledge and experience they might draw on and
• how these might be demonstrated and/or acquired
It is probably that in future, as in the past, the majority of those working in cybersecurity will have transferred in from other career paths and a spell in cybersecurity may well be a stepping stone to another career path.
We need to make it much easier to assemble courses and training and assessment programmes from evolving modules which are internationally recognised,
How successful the Cybersecurity Council is crating the necessary frameworks will help determine its overall it overall success/failure.
Government (DfE as well as DCMS on Cyber) should support (both funding and information on its own activities) clearing houses for work experience, apprenticeship and training opportunities (both local and national) and guidance on pastoral care, particularly for the neuro-diverse and returners.
Broader Cybersecurity Capability
The Government should work with the Information Commissioner and others to implement the outstanding recommendation of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee report “Cyber Security – the protection of personal data on-line”.
“All relevant companies should provide well-publicised guidance to existing and new customers on how they will contact customers and how to make contact to verify that communications from the company are genuine. This verification mechanism should be clearly signposted and readily accessible, as with existing customer contact and complaints mechanisms.” (Para 14)
“security by design should be a core principle for new system and apps development and a mandatory part of developer training, with existing development staff retrained as necessary.” (Para 18)
“where the risks of attack are significant, the person responsible for cyber security should be fully supported in organising realistic incident management plans and exercises, including planned communications with customers and those who might be affected, whether or not there has an actual breach.” (Para 20)
“it should be easier for consumers to claim compensation if they have been the victim of a data breach. There are a number of entities (for example the Citizens Advice Bureau, ICO and police victim support units) that could in principle provide further advice to consumers on seeking redress through the small claims process. It would be useful for the Law Society to provide guidance to its members on assisting individuals to seek compensation following a data breach. The ICO should assess if adequate redress is being provided by the small claims process.” (Para 25)
“All telecommunications companies and on-line retailers, and other cyber-vulnerable organisations, should take steps to ensure that compliance with data protection rules and Cyber Essentials are key criteria when selecting third party suppliers.” (Para 26).
“Cyber Essentials should be regularly updated to take account of more recent attacks, including the need for security, incident management and recovery plans and processes for responding to cyber ransom demands.” (Para 30)
“The ICO and Cyber Essentials should publish further guidance on informing the relevant authorities and include best-practice examples of how to inform in an appropriate way those affected, in order to strike the best possible balance between protecting information that is sensitive to police investigations, whilst recognising consumer/customer requirements to be made aware of a breach that may affect them. This is particularly relevant as the EU GDPR will extend the obligation to inform consumers to all companies and organisations, not just telecommunications companies and ISPs.” (Para 33)
“escalating fines, based on the lack of attention to threats and vulnerabilities which have led to previous breaches.”. Para 18 … escalating fines for delays in reporting a breach.” and “scope to levy higher fines if the organisation has not already provided guidance to all customers on how to verify communications.” Para 34
“the attention of individuals within the organisation may be better engaged by the threat of a custodial sentence, rather than a fine for their employer.” (Para 36) “bring into force Sections 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which would allow a maximum custodial sentence of two years for those convicted of unlawfully obtaining and selling personal data.” (Para 37)
“Companies and other organisations need to demonstrate not just how much they are spending to improve their security but that they are spending it effectively. We therefore recommend that organisations holding large amounts of personal data (on staff, customers, patients, taxpayers etc.) should report annually to the ICO on:
• Staff cyber awareness training;
• When their security processes were last audited, by whom and to what standard(s);
• Whether they have an incident management plan in place and when it was last tested;
• What guidance and channels they provide to current and prospective customers and suppliers on how to check that communications from them are genuine;
• The number of enquiries they process from customers to verify authenticity of communications;
• The number of attacks of which they are aware and whether any were successful (i.e. actual breaches).
Such reporting should be designed to help ensure more proactive monitoring of security processes (both people and cyber) at Board level, rather than reporting breaches after they have happened. Those submitting reports should also be encouraged to include such data in their own annual accounts to help give confidence to customers, shareholders and suppliers that they take security seriously and have effective processes in place. (Para 38)
“The vulnerability of additional pooled data is an important concern that needs to be addressed urgently by the Government. Part of the response could be to require enhanced security requirements and background checks for those with access to large pools of personal data.” Para 41 .
My guidance on the DCMS Report recommendations for the Main Board Directors of Computer Weekly readers is available here. DCMS and the ICO have yet to provide a substantive response but they are even more apposite now that the GDPR has come into force.
The pace of change in the skills in demand (as machine intelligence, now called AI, matures) is matched only by the pace of change in educational technology (using machine intelligence to transform the learning experience) and the ways we can use to acquire the new skills.
Both have overtaken the ability of our national education and training frameworks to respond and the main political parties have recognised this.
Last year the Conservatives called for inputs on Skills and Training for the 21st Century . Labour similarly called for responses to their “Learning society” discussion paper . Meanwhile an army of education “industry” lobbyists have been seeking to influence the Prime Ministers FE/HE funding review due for publication later this month. The Open University has just joined the Digital Policy Alliance with the aim of building on the work of the 21CN Skills Group of the Digital Policy Alliance and its allies. Last week we began the hand-over of the work I have been doing over the past couple of years to bring about change. The “public” programme will include a high level, all-party round table to discuss the policy challenges.
I have just completed editing the first draft of a paper to help inform that discussion. The paper is very much “draft for discussion only” and is being placed in the members areas of the DPA website for comment. Given that this is not yet a DPA discussion paper and we want balanced input, I have also been given clearance to circulate copies to wider audiences. The purpose of this blog is therefore to invite feedback from a wider audience and identify those interested in helping look at the implications.
Below are some of the headlines and a summary of the key points and contents. Please contact DPA if you would like to register interest in joining to help review the draft and organise the necessary follow up studies. Alternatively you can contact me direct. I particularly look forward to comment on errors and omissions and, of course, from those who completely disagree with the analysis and regard me as a heretic who should be burned at the stake for not understanding academic values or business drivers. That will be a nice change from those who say that I am really an academic at heart or a cold-blooded capitalist.
The headline recommendations for Government include:
1) Apply industry-strength market research and simulation techniques to all education and training policy initiatives to help assess the relevance of the objectives and likelihood of success.
2) Change the “target” from 50% “to go to University” to over half (including most public sector employees) to be engaged in life-long learning at graduate/post graduate level.
3) All academically or professionally accredited education, training (including recruitment) and assessment to be allowable against tax (personal and/or corporate), whether or not relevant to current employment.
4) Apprentice grant and levy scheme and other tax allowances/incentives to be extended to cover all professionally accredited training or technical/professional skills acquisition or development costs, including talent attraction, assessment, pastoral care, supervision, schools support etc.
Extracts from the preface
In 1982 I said (at a seminar on AI and Robotics for the UK Technical Press) “a single career change may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution”. Today we can see the spread of annually updated professional and technician “certificates to practice” from medical consultants and aerospace engineers to other areas where proof of current competence is essential. Meanwhile digital marketing or security practitioners can become seriously out of date within months unless they spend time each week keeping up to date. A more profound problem than the supposed threat to jobs is the challenge posed by artificial intelligence to the status of academic values and the knowledge-based professions.
We have, today, a wealth of globally networked on-line materials and assessment tools (many using AI, from the simple to the sophisticated) that can enable teachers and learners to keep abreast of change, including of personal competence, motivation and performance. But our consultation and planning mechanism for setting skills definitions and standards, let alone forecasting volumes, cannot keep pace. We need to look again at policy and funding frameworks and processes that have changed little in a hundred years. We need to allow schools, colleges and universities to give teachers and pupils/students the freedom to follow good practice as it evolves, without waiting for semi-mandatory national “guidance” and funding.
1) Analyses of the reasons for the voting patterns in the 2016 referendum and 2017 General Election indicate that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, it is no longer politically acceptable for the UK to rely on imported talent for the skills needed by employers while saddling so many voters and their children with debts they may never repay. It is little wonder that the study into FE and HE funding launched by the Prime Minister last year is taking so long. The issues go well beyond funding. The pace of change with regard to the skills in demand and our ability to use technology to help assess, educate and train raw talent have outstripped the ability of public sector policy, funding and accreditation processes to respond to the resultant challenges and opportunities.
2) At the same time the mass deployment of on-line learning, expert systems and artificial intelligence means memory and logic are losing status, as did the ability to read and write when literacy became commonplace. Basic digital disciplines (such as coding and systems thinking) change slowly, if at all, but the application skills in demand change faster than we can agree a curriculum, let alone agree academically acceptable accreditation of the knowledge and competence expected by employers and specify and deliver publicly funded courses and qualifications. The pressures pose an existential challenge to traditional educational hierarchies and academic structures, not just planning and funding processes.
3) There has been a dramatic shortening (from years to months) of the time necessary to assemble mass market or customized on-line learning programmes, many using “AI” and gamification to enable personalised motivation, delivery, practice and assessment. Skills which took months or years to master can then be acquired within days or weeks by those with the necessary attitude and aptitude. But the gap between the expected delivery standards and timescales of industry and commerce and those of academic accreditation bodies are widening, equally dramatically.
4) There are also tensions between processes (from “T” levels through Apprenticeship or Degree Standards) intended to meet the needs of specific sectors, trades or professions and the growing use of “intelligent systems” (accessing whatever body of knowledge is needed) to enable digital users to cross disciplinary boundaries. The current focus on national “standards” needs to embrace processes to facilitate customized cross-boundary skills development, mixing pre-existing and/or shared modules from an evolving variety of sources, national and international.
5) The falling proportion of the population who can now expect one career (let alone job) for life brings into question the mandatory, “league table enforced”, focus of schools on “national” curricula and examination hierarchies designed to filter pupils for “suitable” full-time University degree courses. The availability of reliable of schools broadband should be used to empower teachers to “educate” all with the basic skill and motivation for a world of modular, flexible, graduate level, lifelong “earn while you learn”, with time out to “enjoy learning for its own sake”, changing career, occupation and vocation as aspirations and the employment on offer evolve.
6) There are growing pressures on Universities and College to improve teaching and pastoral care as they compete for the student loans and apprentice funding of a shrinking pool of school-leavers. The long-term winners will be those who also work with employers (local, national and international) and sports, leisure, cultural and travel operations to offer and exploit lifelong learning activities which support freedom of choice with regard to work-life balance – from career development, through family responsibilities to post retirement “learning for pleasure”.
7) We can also see some of the older Public Schools and Oxbridge Colleges, masters of survival, involving their alumni with careers events which offer world-class globe-trotting apprenticeships, with residential periods in best of breed research centres around the world. At the other end of society, far-sighted councils are looking at the provision of full fibre broadband to social housing estates – to provide affordable access for the excluded (whatever reason) to world class education and training programmes supported by teachers based on their local school/college.
1) Turning the pace of change from a challenge to an opportunity
1.1 Tomorrow came yesterday
1.2. The pieces are in place for a world class industrial strategy for educational technology
1.3. We also need a joined-up strategy for vocational skills and employment
1.4 Both require cross-boundary co-operation
1.5 It presents challenges to traditional academic structures not just processes
1.6 Variety is the spice of life – One size will not fit all
2) Predicting the skills of the future in ways that aid meaningful decisions
2.1 Planning Consortia, Consultation and Market Research
2.2 Segmentation: from expert, through professional, technician and application to user
2.3 The shape-shifting of skills boundaries across trades, professions and disciplines
2.4 Basic attitudes, aptitudes and disciplines change slowly, if at all
2.5 Coding , robotics, systems thinking and data analytics (the basis of AI) are core
2.6 The rate of change in technician and applications skills is accelerating
2.7 Growing the talent pool
2.8 Is “digital literacy” still needed, as opposed to literacy, numeracy and social skills?
3 A national strategy based on local access to global planning and delivery partnerships
3.1 Facilitate rapid, flexible, local response within national planning/funding frameworks
3.2 Enable local access to international programmes and globally recognized qualifications
3.3 The Linage and interoperability of learning and competence modules is critical
3.4 So too is building on the bet of what already works
3.5 Enabling local access to international programmes and globally recognized qualitications
3.6 Support faster UK response cycles to emerging/changing demand
3.7 “Liberate” Universities, Colleges and Schools to serve as local, national or global support and delivery hubs in world class life-long learning, quality control and/or research networks
3.8 Change the Apprentice Levy and Grant into an Accredited Skills Levy and Rebate
4 Empowering Informed Choice
4.1 The growing range of choices
4.2 Help pupils, parents, adults and employers understand the alternatives
5 Removing the obstacles to painless change
5.1 Facilitating response to changing the economics of retrain versus recruit
5.2 Prioritise tax-free training over the “prevention of abuse”
5.3 Replace “challenges” by “funded experiments” and publicise success
5.4 Raise the status of apprentices
5.5 Link skills policy to immigration policy
6 The Action Plan
6.1 Recommendations for Employers and Recruiters
6.2 Recommendations for Education and Training Providers
6.3 Recommendations for Trade Unions and Professional Bodies
6.4 Recommendations for Central Government
6.5 Recommendations for Local Government
6.6 Recommendations for Voters
1 Turning the pace of change from a challenge to an opportunity
Accelerating technology change presents serious challenges to those seeking to plan courses and curricula in advance to meet predicted skills needs – examples include the new “T” levels. But advances in educational technology also transform our ability to develop and distribute new courses and materials to meet new needs within months, not years.
1.1 Tomorrow came yesterday
We can now see the reality of the future envisaged in the early 1980s when the Micros in Schools programme was launched and “Training for multi-career lives” was commissioned as part of project to look at the implications for society (including education) of the adoption of “Knowledge based reasoning systems” over “The Next Ten Years”. The seminar was for the UK technical press on the economic and social implications of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics for Education. This was the paper than introduced the concept that education should be the introduction to a world of life-long learning rather than a career for life and that. “status will pass to the man doing the job that no mere machine can do”.
The forecast was that:
“The impact of technology on the personal service jobs, from street cleaning to street walking, will be negligible. Gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, cooks and so on will be needed just as now.
At the other end of society, however, the changes may well be traumatic as expert systems render obsolete the book-learning and machine-like logical skills of most lawyers, accountants and consultants … the complex diagnoses that elevate the Harley Street consultant above the local general practitioner, can already be done faster and more accurately by computer. In twenty years … the general practitioner will no longer refer you to the hospital for analyses and diagnoses but will do them himself with the aid of his surgery expert systems backed by links to national epidemiological and other databases … the simple application of memory and logic which any properly programmed computer can do.”
The consequent argument was both re-assuring and challenging. To quote the abstract:
Most of the basic skills needed over the next hundred years can be predicted with reasonable certainty but many of the precise trades and professions cannot. “Age related careers” is an employment strategy which can handle such uncertainty. Fundamental changes to the education system are necessary. Information technology makes these possible at economic cost. Encouragement and favourable publicity are more effective weapons of persuasion than coercion but many actions at all levels are needed if the inability of our education system to cope with change is not to deny us the benefits which the new technology is bringing to other societies.
Since then millions of jobs have been lost and millions more created as the pace of change accelerates. Today a wealth of globally networked on-line materials and assessment tools (many using AI, from the simple to the sophisticated) enables teachers and learners to transform the processes of acquiring and demonstrating both knowledge competence in new skills. These are used by employers around the world to cut the time from “learning to earning” from years to weeks.
Schools with access to full fibre broadband can transform the delivery of STEM education and careers advice, using the wealth of material already available. They are also being used to open the potential for lifelong learning in the skills of future.
Example include the commoditization of both Artificial Intelligence (many definitions and variations as the human intelligence copies/extends) and training in how to apply it. In May 2018 the University of Helsinki and a design consultancy launched an app to promote a free online “Elements of AI course. By December 2018 this had been adopted by 250 Finnish companies as part of their response to the business case for the Finnish industrial strategy to lead the world in the application of AI and over 10,000 students, 6,300 from Finland, had already graduated using the English language version).
To see more please register your interest in joining the 21CN Skills Group with the DPA or contact me with you details.
BT has announced plans to train another 3,000 apprentices on top of 3,500 engineers, including apprentices, hired last year.
The announcement included an update on BT’s plans for new and upgraded training centres to train Openreach staff (announced in March last year) when the Secretary of state for Work and Pensions opened the second of the new centres, in Peterborough. The first, near Bradford, became operation before Christmas. Yarnfield (near Stoke-on-Trent) was an upgrade and expansion of an existing centre. The other new centres are Bolton, Crawley, Exeter, Livingston, Newport, Nursling (Southampton), Romford (Essex), Thornaby (Tees-side) and a centre in Northern Ireland. Three of these are due to open over the next three months. By March BT will have doubled the learning days it deliver annually to 160,000.
It expects, however, to have no capacity available to sell to others.
BT has yet to fully recover from the 50% cut in both infrastructure investment and preventive maintenance budgets in 2008. A side effect of PIA access has been a need to train thousands of engineers to, for example, inspect poles, ducts and cabling that have not been checked in years and to retrain thousands of others to handle GFast, let alone Fibre to the Premises: Openreach also announced 11 new locations where it will be building new FTTP networks during 2019 – including Bury, Barking & Dagenham, Bexley, Croydon, Greater Glasgow region, Harrow, Merton, Redbridge, Richmond upon Thames, Sutton Coldfield, and Salford. This brings the total number of towns, cities and boroughs that Openreach will be building in to 25. Those already announced are: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Exeter, The Wirral, Coventry, Nottingham, Belfast, Swansea.
Successful applicants in England and Wales who complete 12 months at Openreach will receive a BTEC Level 2 Diploma in professional Competence for IT & Telecoms Professionals. Scottish joiners will receive a Diploma for IT and Telecommunications Professionals at SCQF Level. BT is looking for partners to help it get the programme agreed as a level 2 Apprenticeships so that it can claim its levy back!
The expansion of the BT in-house engineering workforce over the year ahead, net of “wastage” (e.g. retirement) will be about 1,600. It will remain heavily dependent on external contractors.
Meanwhile the estimated shortfall of those competent to help build in contractors, and those of its competitors, to build full fibre networks is about 15,000.
To that should be added the shortage of those competent to construct hybrid networks (cable and wireless) networks to serve multiple dwelling units and smart building complexes (from office block through to airports, business parks, football stadiums and shopping malls to Universities science parks).
The Digital Policy Alliance meeting on 21st January to address the shortage of Digital Infrastructure Construction Skills to which I referred in my previous blog was fully booked, action packed and off-the-record. By the end February I expect the participants to ready for a formal announcement of the actions that were agreed and their implementation plans. In the meantime I have been asked not to steal their thunder.
The plans cover most, but not yet all of the actions identified on November 26th. The main exception is co-operation on talent acquisition programmes. For example – how do we get the message to physically fit youngsters who balk at the idea of £50 – 60,000 of debt and no job in prospect, but are willing to get out of bed early in the morning, whatever the weather, to train for their chosen sport and also willing and able to get a driving license (if they do not already have one) that they can be earning £40,000 within the year. More-over they can be on the bottom rung of a hybrid career path (via degree-linked apprenticeships and other training programmes) towards building, maintaining and exploiting the digital infrastructure of the future. And they are likely to be paid, at each stage of that career rather more than those who began with £50 – 60,000 of debt.
That message will not go down well with schools dependent on the funding that goes with 6th formers. It will not go down well with those Universities who are not already making the transition to working with employers on degree-linked apprenticeship. But is a reflection of the changes of status that go with the 4th Industrial Revolution
Please contact the Digital Policy Alliance if you would like to join the group to co-operate on talent acquisition programmes (from teenagers, through armed forces veterans and the under-employed to those returning to work force) and the organisation of local skills partnerships and training facilities to meet you own needs.
Also make contact if you would like details of what was agreed on the 21st January and the implementation plans as soon as these are agreed for announcement.
Problems with quality, not just quantity threaten to derail full fibre roll out as they did cable TV roll out 25 years ago.
Over the past couple of years broadband roll-out projects (BT, Virgin, City Fibre etc.) have become increasingly delayed because of shortages of relevant construction skills. The current excuse for these is Brexit but the current problems began when BT restarted investment after receiving BDUK funding. They are similar to the quality problems which derailed the roll-out of Cable TV in the 1990s and lost the shareholders’ investments as the industry “consolidated” and NTL and Telewest went into Chapter 11. Sub-contractors, many from Eastern Europe, did not have the competence they claim. They damaged other utilities, destroyed gardens, killed trees, failed to correctly reinstate roads and pavements and angered local residents and potential customers. The consequent hostility led to delays in getting approvals for construction and the cable companies ran out of funds before achieving critical mass. But for local loop unbundling the rump of the industry would probably have been bought by Sky for £1 instead of salvaged for the US Bondholders by Virgin Media and sold on to Liberty Global.
The UK skills base imploded after Local Loop Unbundling.
Then local loop unbundling destroyed the business case for the BT 21CN programme. This led to the decimation of BT’s in-house engineering teams, to savage cuts in spend on outside contractors and to a decade long standstill in external infrastructure investment. By the time the BDUK funds began to flow the skills had emigrated to build networks around the world leaving behind neither a pool of new generation telecoms construction skills nor a talent pipeline.
And the collapse of Carillion compounded the problems
Then, at the point demand for network construction skills began to recover, the collapse of Carrillion delivered a double whammy. BT and its network construction suppliers (like Fujitsu) had contracted much of the civil engineering work to Carrillion – which had, in turn, hoovered up much of the UK construction industry and dominated its supply chains. The latter imploded in chaos at that same that those with dual source contracts with its competitors, like Telent wanted to use them to plug the gaps left by Carillion. The BT response included plans to recruit and train 3,000 new “engineers” to meet the needs of Openreach but, in the period before setting up the ten new training centres announced three months later, work on BDUK contracts inevitably slowed. The delays with the Gigaclear full-fibre roll-out across Devon and Somerset also began with the collapse of Carillion. A take-over of the next contractor delayed matters further and Gigaclear had to be refinanced to cover further cash flow delays while expanding its in-house workforce and training programmes. About this time Virgin Business Media began planning its apprenticeship programmes and City Fibre had to refinance its expansion plans on less generous terms than those expected by shareholders at the time of its most recent rights issue . Meanwhile those serving multiple dwelling units, like Hyperoptic and Community Fibre were also setting up their own training operations. Those planning to rely on existing civil engineering sub-contract supply chains face increasing problems as competition for suitable trainees, let alone experienced contractors, increases.
There is a view that Brexit will make matters worse but the use of supposedly skilled Eastern Europeans has been part of the problem. The skills to build robust full fibre, wireless or hybrid networks are in short supply across the EU as the roll out of 4-5G infrastructures accelerate. Those genuinely competent can earn more in, for example, Germany. Those not competent bring their employers into disrepute – compounding problems with agreeing timely access, wayleave and streetworks and causing expensive remedial work. Their streetworks IDs can be based on certifications from centres where no-one who paid the fee failed the course. We have demonstrable free movement of the incompetent because the blacklisting of those demonstrably incompetent is no longer legal and there are no common processes for registering employer-validated log books of past performance.
Current plans to rebuild the UK skills base do not yet address the inherited quality problems, let alone the changes in skills for building new converged fibre (backbone) and wireless (fixed and mobile) networks. And little is being done to create pipelines for the skills to roll-out and exploit the smart infrastructures of the future. In consequence when, last July, I was asked to speak to the UK Fibre Connectivity Forum on Digital Infrastructure Skills we had a glut of would-be infrastructure investors because shortages of the construction skills to turn planning into cash flow had led to an implosion of credible investment opportunities. Today a growing number of local authorities are dreaming of becoming smart cities or counties but unless they are also planning to help contractors recruit and train those to build the infrastructure, (as well as working to provide easy access to highways, wayleaves and anchor tenants) their Council leaders are likely to have retired before construction begins.
My presentation on skills standards, paraphrased here followed one on the Local Full Fibre Roll Out programme. The DDCMS presenter confirmed that the Skills to deliver the programme was now their main concern. They felt the Barrier Busters now had credible plans for addressing the other issues. In October the Broadband Stakeholders Group organised a round table with the DDCMS Skills Barrier Buster and the Treasury Digital Infrastructure Team and a cross section of network operators and construction companies. This led to a consensus that IET (not present though a number of participants were members), be asked to look at the standards and quality control problems, particularly the practicality of creating registers of competence. A couple of weeks later I was being chased by DDCMS over progress and was able to say that I planned to use the session on barriers to broadband roll out at the INCA 2018 Conference to summarise progress and invite delegates to help. By the time of the INCA event I was able to announce a DPA round table on 26th November, hosted by the Digital Skills Solutions team of Newham College. Newham College not only turns inner-City NEETs into digital apprentices for the major employers in City of London (working with City and Guilds, CompTIA, Microsoft, Samsung et al) it has also been chosen as the GLA Construction Academy. It was thus an ideal host for bridging the gap at the hart of the Digital Infrastructure Skills problem.
Creating coalitions of the willing to meet the needs of their supply chains as well as themselves
That round table on 26th November was unusual in many ways – including both venue (the London Fashion and Textile Museum happens to be administered by Newham College and the creative industries are massive consumers of bandwidth at the heart of the digital world) and format. It brought together planning and personnel directors from network operators and construction companies alongside the chief executives of training provider and Local Government broadband champions and Economic Planning Directors. The interplay revealed the gaps in understanding that have bedevilled thinking to date For example – a driving license is a now mandatory pre-condition for more trainee posts than a digital qualification. Think about it. Most of Uber generation of urban teenagers does not bother to learn how to drive because they cannot afford the insurance, have nowhere to park and perceive no need. But construction workers and service engineers need to drive a van to get themselves and their tools to the customer site and most of the “paper work” can be handled over mobile phone – no need for a lap top and “digital skills”.
They participants identified a series of potential action plans (see below) capable of delivering scalable solutions within months, not years.
Even more important, several of those present had agreed action plans before they left.
Within a fortnight the IET had hosted a meeting with DSS, City and Guilds and the Chief Executive of the Highways Electrical Association to look at how to crack the quality control problem with existing streetworks registers and also host co-operation on talent acquisition and modular training delivery programmes. They plan to present possible solutions (which builds on existing inter-operable log-book standards) to employers on 21st January with the aim of piloting implementation within the quarter. Invitations are being sent using the list assembled for the embryonic Digital Policy Alliance Digital Infrastructure Skills Group. Click here for an invitation to ask to register as a prospective member and/or ask for background information. I suggest you also ask for me to be informed because I will be serving as an advisor until I retire (again!) at Easter.
Summary of the current situation as identified on 26th November:
1. Shortages of the basic civil and electrical skills to competently and safely lay cables alongside/under roads and pavements and reinstate surface threaten to inflict delays on full-fibre roll-out programmes akin to those which derailed the roll out of cable TV. There are similar shortages and quality problems with regard to installing cabling in multiple dwelling units,
2. Most of the skills in immediate shortage are not “digital”. More-over they can be acquired inside 2- 3 months, using short modules interspersed with on-the-job experience by physically fit trainees who have (or are able to acquire) a driving license. “Pop – up“ training facilities to deliver the modules necessary can supposedly be created at a month’s notice, given suitable premises and paying customers. Most network construction is planned 12 – 18 months in advance.
3. The shortages arise primarily because commercial confidentiality regarding the roll-out plans of the network operators means that construction contractors cannot pre-plan recruitment and training and training providers cannot pre-plan the necessary modular delivery capacity.
4. The problems with talent attraction arise largely because careers advice, whether for school-leavers or armed forces veterans is geared almost entirely towards acquiring class-room based qualifications. “Building the physical/digital infrastructure of the future” does not feature as a career path. Potential recruits are not made aware of the opportunities on offer to “earn while they learn in the open air”. Current funding mechanisms which require 20% of working hours spend in off-the-job learning do not help. Nor does the inability to charge recruitment and selection costs against the levy.
5. There are issues with the provision of standards, training modules and practice facilities with regard to some modern network construction techniques. There are also issues to do with the assembly of modules and work experience into apprenticeships to enable training costs to reclaimed against the levy. This is now paid by most network operators and construction companies and almost none have yet been able to reclaim. These problems overlap with those faced by employers in other industries.
Summary of the Actions Needed:
1 Create registers of demonstrated technical competence, based on existing qualifications (updated as necessary) to provide the evidence missing from the Streetworks Qualifications Register . These might build on the Highways Electrical Association and other professional/trade association, log books such as City and Guilds Digital Me (which shares the Open Badge Standard with players like IBM and Microsoft)) and/or programmes like iDEA (to draw in NEETs and others).
2 Organise talent attraction, acquisition and development programmes to meet shared needs, both short and long term, using existing processes and standards. National and local campaigns and competitions offering work experience opportunities to pupils and students might be organised with JISC and the Grids for Learning to convey messages and materials to not only schools and colleges but those commonly left out of such exercises, from youth groups and those in care as well as to under-employed adult communities.
3 Share information on forward needs with current and potential training providers and plan modular delivery when and where needed. The aim here would be to bring Local Authorities and FE College serving communities where broadband roll outs are planned alongside network builders, contractors and commercial training providers to remove risk by organising joined up local recruitment and training to meet known needs.
4 Identify those willing to work together on the longer term career development and skills delivery plans to plan, build, maintain and exploit the Smart (including secure, resilient, inter-operable fix and mobile 4/5G) infrastructures of the future.
Context for the possible action plans – both problem and opportunity – summarising some of the points made in discussion on November 26th:
1 How do we fit skills in short supply, which can be mastered inside with days of weeks by suitable trainees who can be productive from day one, into current skills frameworks?
A wide range of skills are needed and there are many career paths but the skills in immediate shortage are those at the bottom. These can be used to get trainees revenue earning from the very start, before either side commits to a longer term training programme or apprenticeship. They include basic streetworks (e.g. digging trenches, laying cables and reinstating road surfaces) or safely installing cabling in buildings (e.g. cutting through and reinstating fire resistant barriers – not leaving the building vulnerable both inside and outside like the Grenfell Tower). In many cases trainees can be “productive” from day one – shadowing and learning from a skilled operative on tasks which require a second person for safety purposes only, e.g. to watch for traffic).
Most of the subsequent technician skills can be acquired in short modules (e.g. to use complex equipment or plan operations) interspersed with supervised practice. Few require significant periods of off-the-job training – as opposed to the on-site or evening use of distance learning materials, simulations and assessments to acquire and demonstrate understanding of background knowledge.
Unfortunately most current public programmes are unattractive because they mandate periods of off-the-job training (20% is mandatory on apprenticeships) which are not relevant to most of the skills in current shortage or modern industrial and commercial training practice. Why should apprenticeship levy payers be pre-cluded from spending their levy on more cost effective ways of developing basic skills among those who may later proceed up the skills ladder?
2 How could/should we address known problems of quality control with the certification of supposed skills, including those claimed by immigrants, whether from EU or elsewhere?
Problems with unskilled staff, often with limited English, whose competence does not match that indicated by their Streetworks ID cards, exacerbates conflict with Local Authority Highways Departments and property owners and tenants and complicates the implementation of Streetworks Guidance or compliance with building regulations. There may, or may not, be a need to update the qualifications/certifications which these record but there is a clear need to record the competence and/or conduct shown in the work place, using employment log books and registers that can be checked and validated by future employers. There are a number of industry registers for electrical staff which could be used as the basis for shared registers which also cover streetworks and intra-building skills. A growing number of certification bodies offer similar services using global standards for inter-operability (e.g. City and Guilds, Digital Me ).
Action: identify those interested in working together to produce shared/inter-operable employment records/log books using the “Open Badge” standard https://openbadges.org/ or similar pending reform of the Streetworks and/or other statutory registration programmes.
3 How could/should we work together, with who, to attract suitable trainees.
Current mainstream careers advice and activities are almost entirely geared towards routing youngsters to University and/or semi-academic FE qualifications with digital literacy (commonly using Microsoft and Google products and services on laptops) for the socially excluded (whether excluded for mental, physical, legal or cultural reasons).
Almost no attention is paid to the “physically fit but non-academic” and/or those who wish to work with their bodies as much as their minds (unless they wish to follow sporting careers). Even less is paid to those who prefer working outside – even though it can pay considerably more for those who do not reach consultancy, managerial or professional level in their chosen careers. Traditional prejudices are reinforced by the league table motivations of schools and teachers.
A pre-requisite for many infrastructure construction posts is a driving license for a van and (often) equipment trailer. Fewer urban teenagers in the “uber generation” learn how to drive Either they do not see the need, or they cannot afford the insurance, (more of a problem than the driving lessons or cost of an old, but roadworthy, car). There are few, if any, public or employer funded training programmes, other than for would-be bus and lorry drivers. There is a common view that such skills will be made redundant by driver-less vehicles but “digital skills” (alias use of current office systems) as opposed to “coding for all” (using raspberry pi and microbit to develop abstract and applied logic and engineering skills), are already becoming redundant.
We pay lip service is paid towards social inclusion while failing to address the practical problems with attracting and/or supporting those from problem families, coming out of care, young offenders institution, prison or the armed forces. DWP insists that the timing and other gaps between loss of benefits (including by other members of a family where no-one else is in work) and earnings be treated on a case by case basis. In practice this presents almost insurmountable problems. Meanwhile recruitment costs, work experience and selection costs (let alone pastoral care costs) cannot be offset against the apprenticeship levy. Employer provided/supported accommodation is not only not reimbursable but is additionally taxed as a benefit in kind. By contrast most Universities now have programmes to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds doing full time degrees.
The first need is to produce careers messages, materials and events that will be attractive to the target audiences and will still be used by teachers and careers advisors. The key headline message for generation Uber might be: “Earn good money while you learn how to build, maintain and exploit the digital infrastructure of the future and widen your career choices” – with a clear sub-text that a physically fit recruit (any age from 20 – 60), willing to work in the open air, with no qualifications other than a driving license and the ability to use a mobile phone can be earning £20 – 25,000 (plus bonus) inside three months, with all necessary training (perhaps including to acquire the driving license!) paid for by the employer. Employers need to also show that their work placements are not charity but extended “interviews” for places on career paths that lead (including via subsequent training programmes, including apprenticeships, degree-linked or not) to the management of complex network installation programmes as well as a kaleidoscope of other opportunities building, maintaining and exploiting the smart utility infrastructures of the future.
But careers materials have to be used. We also need to identify channels and organise campaigns to promote those materials and events to those who will benefit most and/or bring most to the participating employers. These include e.g. physically fit NEETs of all ages, those trapped indoors with jobs they do not enjoy (or in prison), armed forces veterans and others used to organisational challenges or who enjoy the out-of-doors team-building exercise more than the day job. These might include working with high status groups like the City Livery Companies to exploit links with groups like Barnados, Founders4Schools, NSPCC, Placer, Veterans Associations, YMCA etc. DDCMS should also be asked to close the loop with MoJ plans to improve prison training and release programmes..
Action: Identify those employers and training providers interested in working with the Grids for Learning, National Charities, Local authorities and others to organise and publicise work experience opportunities, recruitment materials and events to attract suitable recruits from target audiences in relevant travel to work areas.
4 How could/should we set about overcoming the problems of commercial confidentiality and competition policy which get in the way of predicting demand (numbers and location) with sufficient accuracy to reduce the risk of organising supply.
There is much confusion over the scale and nature of the skills in current and prospective demand. BT is seeking thousands of contractors as well as a new generation of in-house skills. Others are scaling up from dozens to hundreds of new engineers per month or quarter. Some of the demand is because of problems with previous contractors. Some is genuinely new.
The techniques used for most publicly funded skills forecasts use definitions which are of little, if any, practical value to those planning course content, location or capacity. There appears to be no reliable data on how many skilled individuals are currently needed, where, or by who – let alone those who will be needed in the future to deliver the plans being worked on confidentially. This need not be so. Network builders commonly know their plans, expectations and aspirations over the next two to three years and most of the necessary training programmes can be organised at three months notice by the private sector. I will not comment on the problems to do with public sector planning/funding cycles. I am running late in producing a separate paper on these.
For reasons of commercial confidentiality the forward roll-out plans are rarely conveyed to construction contractors, training providers or recruitment agencies in time to enable the latter to also plan ahead. There is similarly little linkage between those planning 5G and smart products, technologies, buildings and/or cities and those who should be planning now to provide the necessary skills modules. [see also my blog on the IET plans in this space].
The aim should be to enable processes to bypass commercial confidentiality and enable local authorities, trade associations and others to collate demand based on collating the forward manpower plans and budgets of those intending to service their locations. Where this is not practical, analyses of current and planned recruitment advertising, like those produced by Burning Glass for Comptia and/or local authorities in the UK have been consistently better at identifying trends in demand but are of limited value in looking ahead.
This is, however, a poor second best to enabling network planners, local authorities, product developers, human resources directors (various titles), training providers and recruitment agencies to share confidential information and facilitate investment in rapid-return pop-up training facilities which have the potential to grow into facilities to meet long term evolving needs – as tangible demand emerges from the fog of forecasts.
The second, overlapping but different, need is to assemble a group to similarly work with technology and equipment suppliers, would-be smart local authorities, professional bodies and skills providers to plan ahead for the skills needed to build, maintain and exploit the inter-operable, critical infra-structure utilities for a smart (5G etc.) world. This should link to the IET work to produce guidance on standards, inter-operability, planning, procurement and skills issues for a 5G/Smart world. [see link above]
• Identify leadership team and invite participants (and others to be identified) to form a subgroup to agree what forward short-medium term planning information they are willing to share, with whom and to identify who else they would like to invite.
• Identify leadership team and invite participants for a longer-term planning exercise
5. Addressing the problems of reviewing and implementing current/proposed apprenticeship frameworks, including delivery and support, within current frameworks
There is much confusion with regard to what can and cannot be done using existing and planned apprenticeship and other skills frameworks and these are known to be under review, with political pressure for further change under way.
The problems are generic, apply to all industries and date from decisions by DfE officials to by pass the Sector Skills Councils. The solutions are also generic and will undoubtedly form part of the recommendations from the Prime Minister’s review into the Funding of Further and High Education. The means change will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely, while some of the UK’s most powerful interest groups fight to preserve their century old funding structures and way of life. Hence the reason so many in industry thought it easier to import talent than to sort out the UK education and training system.
Given the likely timescale for such fundamental change, it is more productive to identify what can be achieved by expanding delivery using already approved standards and suppliers, creating partnerships to increase throughput and serve additional locations as necessary. In parallel we should be to look at how these can be used to attract recruits for pre-apprenticeship work experience programmes and/or to look at new standards where necessary. This will also facilitate incremental change as students and parents are enabled to take better informed decisions rather than being herded towards debt funded full time degrees and the economic serfdom that follows.
Action: identify those interested in working on which apprenticeship standards, including those willing to work with BT on the Level 2 Trailblazer group which they are chairing.
Other longer term actions should then include:
• Publicising and replicating good practice in the provision of world-class local training access, when and where needed, including in co-operation with local authorities, Colleges, Universities, LEPs and others planning provision for the jobs of the future.
• Working with others across industry and political boundaries to secure action at whatever level necessary to improve current skills and apprenticeship frameworks so that they are fit for purpose and economically/socially sustainable.
The big challenge for 2019 is not Brexit. It is the demographic time bomb. Britain can no more leave “Europe” than it makes sense to tie our economy to a protectionist “ever closer Union”. I will not attempt to discuss how best to delay the decision process until the European parliamentary election, coupled to growing regime change across the members states, enables us to have constructive dialogues with new negotiating teams on both sides. Instead I would like to take the opportunity of the current CPF consultation on Disability policy to take a look at an issue that has been taboo for 30 years too long. It also happens to be an area where the more imaginative use of technology turns problems into opportunities on a massive scale.
“Simple demographics show that over the next few decades our workforce will shrink and the number of pensioners to be supported will grow. Meanwhile the cost of energy and raw materials will continue to increase. If we do not make better use of technology to create more wealth and simultaneously release and equip manpower to take better care of the elderly, you and I will grow old and cold alone, in the dark.” No End of Jobs, CPC 1984.
Since that was written we have imported millions of health and care workers from around the world to plug the gap the UK demographic gap. But birth rates are now falling around the world. We can no longer use immigrants to postpone the inevitable.
We have to use technology, including robotics and artificial intelligence, as prosthetic extensions to human ability, to harness the talents of those who previous generations might have regarded as “disabled”. We should remember that we too will be disabled for the final months or years, (perhaps even decades), of our lives. We need those supposedly job-threatening technologies to extend the period in which we can look after ourselves and enable a shrinking number of careers to look after the growing number of us when we can no longer do so.
This gives a very different perspective to debate over robotics, AI and the effect on employment. The over 55s control over 80% of the nation’s disposable wealth (and funds for investment). We should empower them to use it change the economics and structures of our fragmented care system at all levels. Shuffling us between domiciliary care, care home, nursing home. hospital and hospice according to regulatory structures may be egalitarian (equality of suffering) but is neither humane nor a good use of public funds. We should make effective use of technology to join up our care systems in the patient’s interest, while making the savings that will enable us to better serve everyone – whether or not they can afford to pay for themselves.
Below is the Conservative Science and Technology Forum response to the Conservative Policy Forum Disability and Inclusion Discussion Paper.
The CSTF exists to advise the party , at all levels, on the impact of scientific research and new technologies on society, exploiting the benefits and avoiding the risks. It welcomes the impact of experts, whatever their politics and also aims to provide well informed inputs to the consultations of the Conservative Policy. Membership details are here .
The CPF aims to involve party members across the UK in discussing the major policy issues that will face us over the years ahead. CPF has also taken a decision to encourage its groups to welcome inputs from non-members with relevant experience and expertise. This draft includes comments from the first round of consultation, including over Linked In.
The subject of the discussion brief may look narrow but the open-ended questions below offer the opportunity to juxtapose muddled thinking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” with the need and opportunity to redefine what we mean by “disability” in the face of global, not just UK, demographic time-bomb.
- Housing: How might we better build homes and buildings that everyone can access and use, so as to build a society in which all can participate fully?
New technology enables us to bring many of the jobs of the future to where the workers wish to live, provide they have full fibre and 5G to the home. It enables us to bring telemedicine diagnostics and treatment equipment to the care home or surgery and can empower domestic carers (under remote supervision) to do much of that which currently requires a visit to the surgery or hospital.
We need to consider the homes that workers with limited physical mobility wish to inhabit. They need secure parking outside and/or wide doors, corridors and lifts for their mobility buggies inside. They also need space, power and monitoring connectivity for a variety of automated devices to aid domestic life (robotics for rheumatics and AI for the forgetful).
A first step might be to expedite DHCLG approval for the Ashford local plan (with its requirements for the broadband connectivity of new developments. Another step could be to publicise the authority-wide Access and Wayleave arrangements being pioneered by, for example, Southwark, to enable full-fibre broadband to existing social housing at no extra cost to Council or tenant.
- Transport: How might we better adapt our transport systems so as to offer people with disabilities the same access to transport as everyone else?
The first and most important action is to stop removing inner city parking suitable for use by the disabled and/or those providing them with personal transport. If there has to be choice, disabled parking spaces should have priority over cycle lanes.
Providing more space on buses and trains for mobility scooters to compete with baby buggies and bicycles is a stop gap unless we replace fixed seats with folding seats that are also easy to use by those with limited ability to stand for long. We also need to look at how to encourage Uber, the licensed taxi trade and others (including those employing drivers who are themselves disabled) to provide customised mobility services.
- Health: How might we more effectively reduce the health gap experienced by people with a learning disability, mental health conditions or autism, so as to help everyone to live full, healthy and independent lives?
We need to encourage the creation of joined up on-line care monitoring and delivery systems, akin to those for diabetics which were presented to MPs decades ago by St Thomas’s. They had brought together medical, welfare and care practitioners, across professional and organisational boundaries, in the interest of the patients. There are issues of access to sensitive information but the gap will not be bridged without continuity of locally joined up care and support.
The ban on using services like Babylon GP at Hand https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_Health to support such groups needs to be reviewed. Properly used (and there are indeed issues of privacy, security, audit, testing and peer review hat need to worked through) the underlying approach can be used to deliver significantly improved care at significantly lower cost provided the diagnostic systems are linked to joined-up records under patient control. There is also a significant body of research to indicate that many members of such vulnerable groups can be happier dealing with well-programmed avatars (synthetic human beings with infinite time, patience and predictability) than with genuine human beings.
In this context the ai-based, commoditised voice control/synthesis services (Alexa, Echo, virtual assistant etc.) available from Google, Amazon and others may have issues (some of the parodies of their behaviour are very funny) but they have taken such technologies from the expensive niche to the common place and could/should be used to enable the disabled to be control their own lives and/or be better cared for and supported at much lower cost.
- Employment: How might we work more effectively with employers and people with health conditions so as to help as many as possible to get into and stay in employment?
We need to distinguish between those health conditions which limit employment prospects and those which make individuals well suited to particularly types of employment. Thus GCHQ and some other cybersecurity employers are happy to cover the cost of clinical care and pastoral supervision and care for those with particular neuro-diverse conditions. Meanwhile call centres and monitoring centres (e.g. those providing real-time surveillance on shopping malls) find the physically less mobile an able and loyal workforce. The need is to support intermediaries motivated to place the “disabled” into work (including part-time for when they are able) not just to assess them.
- Participation in Society: How might we better support candidates with disabilities to stand for public office, so that those elected better reflect the diversity of society?
CCHQ should support an “Enabled 2 Win” network, akin to Women2Win.
- Culture Change: How might we all deliver further positive change for people with disabilities, so that society does not miss out on the contribution of any person?
Publicity for those employers actively seeking to recruit those who others regard as disabled.
Publicity for services like Accessable which enable the disabled to plan their shopping and entertainment and promote the services of those who welcome them as visitors and customers. Commission them to audit the accessibility of central and local government offices, libraries, leisure centres and other facilities and include the results in their services.
Require those organising public sector websites and on- line services to make them fit for use by their target audiences, whether or not the latter can use a conventional screen and keyboard. There is a wealth of interfaces available – but few central and local government departments and agencies – design for their use.
Organisations like Abilitynet should be commissioned (i.e. paid) to provide advice when needed and audit the services of those who not think they need advice.
- Any other question you think should have been asked or observation you would like to make?
All public on-line access and information should be fit for use by their target audiences, whether or not the latter can use a conventional screen and keyboard. There is a wealth of interfaces available – but few central and local government departments and agencies – design for their use.
There is a need for publicly accountable processes to test (including peer review) and audit the means by which we plan and deliver services to those who are socially excluded because of perceived disabilities. Commercial confidentiality should have little (if any) place in publicly funded services except during a competitive tendering process. This area needs public debate because the implications of the growth of such confidentiality in support of IPR protected business models using publicly funded research and data are not well understood.
This is particularly so with regard to Artificial Intelligence (whether rule based, derived from algorithmic searches of “big data” or hybrid) based diagnostic or control (robotics) products and services where third party testing and audit (including published peer review) are complicated by current interpretations of IPR law and non-disclosure agreements.
We have had a barrage of reports and articles telling us what the various types of Brexit deal really mean,
None of them come remotely close to this for clarity and vision.
Brexit may be an existential threat to the Digital Establishment and its lobbyists but I confidently that is a years time the British (a ragbag mix of immigrants from around the world, Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Huguenots, Arabs, AfroCaribbeans, Indians, Chinese etc.) will still inhabit a foggy, soggy set of islands, a little over 20 miles offshore from a protectionist sub-continent, approximately equidistant from the original home of information technology (paper, printing and gunpowder) and its current home (Silicon valley and Seattle).
More-over they will still be arguing about whether they wish to protect the past or build a better future.
I also suspect the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish will still be unable to agree which they like least … rule from London or from Brussels.
So far only one of the presents we have ordered on-line this year failed to arrive – more than one e-mails telling us of delivery slots arrived after the parcel. It was therefore only chance that some-one was in to collect. I did, however, enjoy the you tube video referenced in the BBC article on Amazon’s attempts to cut down on parcel theft How long before Royal Mail uses tracker stamps for its premium rate services.
Unless you understand the past you cannot make sense of the present let alone make sensible preparations for an uncertain future. Unfortunately most discussion on education and training policy is based on mythology about the past, systemically flawed measures of success/failure with regard to the present and muddle, misunderstanding and conflict over objectives, let alone strategies, for the future.
1) The pace of change and the revolt against student debt are part of an existential challenge to UK educational hierarchies and systems not just current systems and processes.
I have written many times over the last thirty years on the consequences of our failure to recognise that digital disciplines change slowly, if at all, while the skills in demand change faster than we can agree a curriculum, let alone deliver courses or tests of the knowledge/competence acquired. But the problems we now face go much deeper.
Our inherited social values are endangered by the idea that it is economically, ethically, morally and politically acceptable for half the population to enter the workforce with a millstone of debt that many will never repay. The idea of rebranding student loans as a “graduate tax” appears to be part of the growing trend of using bonded servitude (alongside, IR35, RTI and Universal Credit) to preserve Platonic caste-based “careers for life” and the wage slavery of the 20th century “mixed economy: with public services and nationalised industries replaced by hand-in-glove (commercially confidential) “strategic relations” between the tribes of Whitehall, Westminster and Town/County Hall and a mix of outsourcing conglomerates and regulated monopolies.
But each “industrial revolution” has brought about fundamental changes. “Establishments” which resist those changes do not survive. The survivors have worked out how embrace and exploit change, recruit the best of the innovators into a new and evolving “Establishment”.
Insult is added to injury as many young graduates realise their debt was spent inefficiently acquiring knowledge that has not enhanced their future earnings. They will never catch up with those, lucky enough to get a graduate level apprenticeship, who are now managing them. I say “lucky enough” because it is harder to get a place on current graduate level or degree linked apprenticeships than almost any full-time degree course.
Each industrial revolution has led to a wave of social change that triggers a student revolt against “the establishment”. That accompanying the 4th industrial revolution is now under way. It has already cost the Government its majority at the last election. It has led to massive pressures to improve the quality of teaching and universities having to compete for students as never before. It has led to cut throat competition (and dubious offers) for a shrinking pool of gullible applicants. But, as yet, too few of the latter have an informed choice. Hence the focus on this in the Prime Minister’s review of FE/HE funding. The winners will be those Schools, Universities and Colleges who help all ages, not just the youth of today, to also continue learning while they earn sufficient to regain the additional freedom of choice (including of home, family choice and a dignified old age) that a crumbling crypto-socialist/capitalist state can no longer provide. We can already see the Public Schools, masters (and mistresses) of survival, beginning to involve their alumni with organising careers fares which offer globe-trotting graduate apprenticeships with residential periods in best of breed Universities around the world. At the other end of society, we can see the provision of full fibre broadband to social housing estates enabling those not in education, employment or training to enjoy access to world class education and training programmes.
History is made by those who show up One of the recurrent themes of this blog is that the silent majority gets what is deserves – ignored.
I regularly call on readers to be active via the political parties of their choice, via their professional bodies and/or trade association. I am currently trying to find those who will take over from me in driving the groups via which I have tried to influence, inter alia, skills policy. If you agree with the analysis which follows, and more importantly if you disagree, please contact me via Linked In (with your e-mail address) and volunteer to help build the future you want.
2) The structures and concepts behind our educational values and hierarchies are under global threat … or are they?
On-line access to modular materials, courses and assessments enables employers around the world to “cut the time from learning to earning” from years to weeks. Schools with access to full fibre broadband can similarly transform the delivery of STEM education and careers advice, using the wealth of material already available. The future I envisaged in the early 1980s is coming to pass.
There is, however, now an even bigger challenge. Examination systems around the world are under threat. That threat is not just from internet-assisted cheating (from cyber hacking to get the answers through “electronic examination aids” to impersonation) or because employers are looking for different attitudes, aptitudes and competences. It is from the use of Cloud and AI based techniques to better assess achievement and competence, not just to identify latent talent and individualize the delivery of content that will attract and harness that talent. The “gamification” (alias user attractive/seductive front ends) of educational products and services at all levels makes it far easier to engage the non-academic.
It is not as though the concepts are new.
One of my favourite educational texts is a battered copy of the 1918 edition of the Board of Education “Suggestions for the consideration of Teachers and others concerned in the Work of Public Elementary Schools.” It is all about education in its classical form, the drawing out and harnessing of innate ability. Most startling for the audiences of today, a century later, is the apparent iconoclasm of 1905 (reiterated in a preface dated 1917) with regard to the values we take as “given” today, particularly our belief in the value and virtue of a national curriculum:
“The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself, such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable.”
Today the range and variety of online materials and teacher aids that could be used by teacher to extend their “powers” are constrained only by the curricula over which so many professionals spend so much time with the aim of maintaining, enforcing and updating a Stalinist uniformity in details of practice which our ancestors regarded as anathema.
3) The impact of AI on education and training will be both more and less than I predicted in 1981
In 1982 Norman Tebbitt (then Secretary of State for Employment used a comparison between the Bloodhound Missile (controlled by two kilos of programmable hardware powered by electricity) and the English Electric Lighting Fighter (controlled by half a kilo of wetware powered by gin) to bring a debate on the effect of AI on jobs down to earth. 1989 the then Minister of State for Education, Angela Rumbold, introduced a BBC schools programme on a competition for schoolgirl produced IT careers videos by describing her personal computer as an extension of her mind. A similar point lies at the heart of “The Digital Ape” in which Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson describe how we should live in peace with smart machines .
If we look though the other end of the telescope – at the opportunity instead of the threat – technology enables us to bypass planning processes which have failed for more than over five decades and appear increasingly irrelevant to the future, even if they could be made to work.
Instead of preserving the past we need to ease the pain of transitioning from a centralised, standardised vision of education as a means of imposing the thought patterns of the current establishment on the youth of today to a reinvention of devolution, innovation and evolution to enable them to handle a future which neither we nor they can predict with any more accuracy and certainty than our ancestors.
4) From the Generic to the Digital: from computing in schools to replacing the Tech Partnership?
The problem with discussions on computing in schools is that, once again, the basic disciplines change slowly, if at all. Meanwhile products and services available and the skills supposedly in demand change faster than the timescale for agree a curriculum, let alone deliver. Coding was fashionable in the early 1980s and the micros in schools programme produced a generation of talent including the sound and visual effect engineers, (alias real-time programmers) who enabled British bands to dominate the world. Then came the focus on the mass market “use of IT”, alias how to use Microsoft Office. This served to turn off the next generation – IT became synonymous with boring. The profession wanted a TV soap to enhance its image. It got The IT Crowd.
Now coding is back in fashion. But its greatest value is that it can draw the non-academic into the world of pure logic, bypassing the boring bits – for example by programming microbits to control physical objects and illustrate the disciplines of practical engineering in ways akin to the exercises in the Board of Education Guidance (to which I referred above). Add data analytics (probably best embedded in history or geography projects) and systems thinking (whose absence lies behind most IT disasters of recent years) and we have the basic disciplines needed for most of modern life – not just for “computer scientists”. Meanwhile learning how to cheat an AI based examination system may well be the best way of cutting through the mix of hype and fudge to comprehend the reality behind the emerging “smart” world.
While I was Secretary General of EURIM (now the Digital Policy Alliance) I organised and/or chaired a series of meetings at which a common theme was the need to rationalise the number of channels via which employers were expected to submit their views on what they wanted. A classic statement of the need was in the 2001 IT Skills Summit when the then head of Academic Relations for Microsoft said that his 12 staff had logged over 3000 requests to attend meetings to discuss inputs to exercises to plan courses and curricula. He reckoned he could reasonably schedule attendance at about 300 but there was no way of getting Universities, Colleges, School Course and Curriculum bodies, Funding Agencies etc. to talk to each other. Hence the case for having all such requests routed through a Sector Skills Council (e-Skills, which later became the Tech Partnership). But it never received the funding/authority to fulfil that role. The Funding Agencies kept it on a drop feed, lest is show true independence and the Universities kept bypassing it.
The termination of public funding for the Sector Skills Councils and the consequent winding up of, inter alia, the Tech Partnership has led to a re-fragmentation of the channels via which digital employers and skills providers can make their views known to those working on course and qualification development and delivery. It is, however, interesting that the large IT employers funding one of the successor bodies, that looking after standards and quality control for graduate level digital apprenticeships, are making clear to Universities that they have no time to respond to contacts other than collectively via the new group. Other industries appear to be agreeing similar de facto arrangement with the Institute for Apprenticeships, including for technician level apprenticeships.
Will DCMS support the Digital Industries in organising similar arrangements with Ofsted and the Funding Agencies, who control all but the content frameworks? If so, what will happen with regard to the much wider, and more amorphous, digital user community?
Hopefully, with the Prime Ministers review into funding, we will soon the end of the long standing disconnect between employers needs and the programmes they recognise and public funding processes to support those who do not benefit from industry funded learning/training opportunities. The Digital Policy Alliance 21CN Skills Group recently agree a sub-group to look specifically at this lssue.
5) How do we manage the transition when time is not on our side?
The new processes for applications, technician and professional level apprenticeship standards and delivery are not yet agreed, let alone operational. It is unclear which existing standards frameworks can be re-used with new technical content. The pressure from employers who are unable to offset their current training spend, including on apprenticeships, against the new levy is mounting. We can expect many to go political during the party conference season.
Meanwhile the pressure to reduce reliance on imported skills and the unpopularity of the Student Loan scheme led to the Prime Minister’s review. The responses have been mixed. Some are busy preparing response to defend their current process and deferring difficult decisions until they see both the report and the implementation plans. After all they have seen off many such exercises in the past. Other believe that is it now different. Whatever it recommends the writing is on the wall and they are beginning to organise what they think it should recommend.
I therefore ask readers if they are willing to help organize/co-ordinate well-informed inputs to that review and to the various policy studies (Conservative Science and Technology Forum, Labour Digital etc.) being conducted in parallel, for who-ever (if anyone) wins the next General Election, whether before, after or instead of Brexit.
But given we would be immortal if death came from Whitehall (or Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Rome, Spain, Washington … take your pick), it is more important to support those building on existing successful/good practice – regardless of what Government does, or does not plan.
In this context I would like to commend the TeSLA project being worked up via iStemplus with the support of WCIT (the IT Livery Company) and the work being done via the National Education Network (the collective body for the Grids for Learning, who organise secure Internet connectivity and access to content for most schools in the UK) to not only put such materials on-line but also transform access to careers advice.
Put the two together, add in the Open University, JISC/Janet (the “mutual” which connects UK Universities, Colleges and provides the backbone for the Grids) and LINX (the “mutual” which connects UK internet users with each other and the outside world) and the UK has a world class educational “utility” infrastructure that could give us prime-mover advantage in moving to a world class open market in cloud/AI based education, training and competence assessment products.
“All” that is missing are shared vision and ubiquitous fat fibre pipes. When the politicians lift their sights and begin to look at a world beyond Brexit I hope that is what they will begin to seek. I hope that you, dear reader, will be thinking how to help them find it.
I recently looked at the Hays Index for 2017 to put the UK skills situation into international context. I strongly recommend reading the report on “Regional dynamics of the Global Labour market – skills in demand and tomorrow’s workforce” . The main shortages are not peculiar to the UK. They cannot be addressed by simply importing supposedly skilled staff from overseas. I then used the Index Comparison Tool to go behind the headline figures and had a surprise. I found clear evidence to help explain the bitterness of the current debate on freedom of movement. Those who trumpet the virtues of immigration and untrammelled freedom of movement are indeed living in a different world to those, mainly in the private sector, who voted for Brexit. Their wages, career development and employment prospects have indeed been held down by immigration. Meanwhile those in the public sector blame austerity, bankers and outsourcing and, now, fear of Brexit.
The seven indices measure the pressures currently affecting labour markets compared to the past. The UK scores well on Labour Market Flexibility (which includes the ease of importing skills), compared to Germany, India or the USA – even before Trump. The UK also scores well on Education Flexibility. But it does badly when it comes to harnessing the output of its education system. The pressures in the UK resulting from “Talent Mismatch” (between the skills wanted by employers and those available in the market) are among the highest in the world. Those in Germany are among the lowest. The UK also scores poorly compared to most other countries when it comes to labour market participation.
Meanwhile the pressure in the UK from overall wage inflation is less than in China and significantly less than in Germany. The pattern is similar when it comes to “high skilled occupations” where the wage inflation pressures in Germany are higher than most other countries. But the big difference comes with meeting the needs of “high skilled industries” where the wage inflation pressures are lower in the UK than in China or India while they are through the roof in Germany and the US. Is that because the UK is running down its “high skilled industries”, staffing them with immigrants or both?
This analysis helps explain the bitterness behind the view that UK big business and high tech have ignored the needs of the indigenous workforce, pupils, students and those who would like to return to work. They are accused of lobbying for freedom of movement when they should have been trying to reform the UK skills system. In consequence, despite a revolution in education and training technology, politicians and officials have a common (but probably now faulty) that it is natural for it to be cheaper and easier to import supposedly skilled staff from abroad than to train your own. The consequent scale of recent importation has been such as to hold down wages at all levels, not just for the unskilled. Hence the revolt of the English working class , particularly those in the private sector, against claims those who claim that immigration is good for us all. Those in the public sector blame austerity, bankers and tax-avoiding big (and often high tech) business rather than immigrants for their wages also failing to keep up with inflation.
We should, however, take a closer look at cause and effect.
- Was the effort necessary to bring the UK skills system into line with the needs of employers, as opposed to the interests of the education and training establishment, more than could reasonably be expected of those who have businesses to run?
- Was it a rational decision on the part of big business to focus instead on making it easier to import talent?
- If so, what should be the response, now that we have an electoral revolt and no apparent prospect of consensus on the way forward?
In the 1980s I was at the heart of attempts to reform the UK IT skills system to cope with skills shortage. What I learned led me to write a Bow Group paper entitled “Training for jobs not just jobs for trainers”. I managed to persuade three successive Secretaries of State of the need for change. But each time there was a change of Minister I had to start again – with officials trying harder to block my path. There was a similar pattern when Labour came to power. I had been asked to brief Gordon Brown, as shadow chancellor, on the potential impact of Y2K (was it for “real” or just another IT rip-off). After the election he organised funding direct from Treasury for the Millennium Bugbusters’ programme, with “industry strength” quality control on the training providers to ensure value for money. The follow up, using local ring-fenced pilots to test the use of tax incentives to transform vocational training with trades union support, was boycotted by the “skills establishment”. They would not even launch what was announced in the budget. Then came the fiasco of the Individual Learning Accounts – a great concept but launched with no quality control and thus wide open to fraud. Skills policy reverted to preserving past ways of delivery with a veneer of digital literacy programmes, pilots repeating variations on what had already failed and ignoring successful local initiatives unless they could be repackaged, scaled and managed centrally. One of the lesson of the past half century is that local success , unless designed for seamless scalability, tends to fail when subject to centralised planning and procurement processes.
The problems are bipartisan. The common feature is that processes supposed to be driven by the needs of employers are hi-jacked by hierarchies of consultative and funding committees. That means decisions are taken by those with continuity of attendance. The views of those too busy to attend because they have businesses to run are not heard. Employer representation is therefore commonly via the UK CEOs (alias Country Managers) of overseas multi-nationals. Some have significant UK employment bases and/or have done a good job representing the interests of their UK suppliers and customers. But many have only a sales arm and a limited technology transfer arm (to work with UK University research programmes), with their taxable revenues routed via Luxembourg or Dublin. They have little or no “skin in the game” when it comes to developing in-house technician or professional skills.
The good news is that we have a great opportunity to use blended learning (including the use of AI-based processes to assess aptitude, attitude and achievement) to upskill our existing workforce (both technician and graduate level) and gain competitive advantage against overseas high tech employers – who are suffering even worse skills shortages than we are. Some employers are already beginning to do so, including with the help of players like Hays. Others are, however, hung up trying to overcome the barriers to using the Apprenticeship Grant and Levy system to help them and those in their distribution and supply chains do so.
I am still trying to find out how far the barriers are for real, or just the result of ignorance. What I find will form part of the background papers for the round table on which I will be helping the Digital Policy Alliance.
The irony is that, had the UK not voted for Brexit, that round table would probably have been held last year with the aim of using EU programmes to provide the carrots to bring about change in the UK – including in the context of communautaire (alias French, German, Danish etc.) interpretations of “Freedom of Movement”.
As a “remain” voter who wasted his vote (because it now appears that we have to leave to bring about the reforms I spent the second half of my working life trying to achieve), I find the intellectual shallowness and dishonesty, on all sides, of current debate on skills and freedom of movement very disheartening.
I look forward to getting Brexit day behind us so we can start building a new and more constructive relationship with our European friends and allies, as well as with the rest of the World – including on global, not just pan-EU, co-operation on skills.
I should perhaps add that I personally envisage the need for “evolutionary” strategies/ frameworks which enable forward looking employers and their university, college and commercial training provider partners to pilot scalable win-win solutions which gather pace over time as changes in both demand and supply outpace the ability of centralised planning to keep pace. I also expect those frameworks to be a mix of local, sectoral, national and international (global not just pan-EU) – with blurred and shifting boundaries .