The Conservative manifesto: jobs, skills and growth

14 April 2015

Extending the Right to Buy to more than one million social housing tenants is perhaps the flagship policy in the Conservative manifesto. The principle of giving more people a chance to get on the housing ladder is, I think, a good one, notwithstanding concerns about funding and ensuring every home sold is matched by a new one built.

At NIACE we think help to get on the career ladder is just as important as help to get on the housing ladder. The Conservative manifesto celebrates some genuine successes of the last five years in this regard. Growth in employment has consistently outpaced expectations. The Conservatives promise to continue this, and increase employment by 2 million by 2020. They also want to legislate so that no-one working 30 hours at the National Minimum Wage pays any income tax (though National Insurance is excluded from this).

And the number of Apprenticeships – the favoured programme of all politicians – has grown too (though with concerns over quality and masking falls in other forms of learning). Again the Conservatives pledge to continue this growth, creating 3 million more.

But there are two really big challenges for our country that don’t get enough airtime. The first is that there is relatively little on job, career and skills support beyond young people. This matters because we have an aging population, lengthening working lives, and globalisation is changing the skills needs of jobs.

The second is how to grow the economy. Productivity, the key determinant of living standards, has flatlined since 2008. Some of this was inevitable in the aftermath of recession, as people accepted lower pay and hours to protect jobs. But it now looks more like a pattern. This is bad, not just for people’s living standards, but for the deficit as well – we need wages to rise to boost tax receipts.

For both of these learning and skills for all adults and young people are crucial. NIACE will shortly set out the actions we want a new government to take in its first 100 days. But here I highlight three that are particularly relevant to the manifesto’s themes:

•    Career Advancement Service. Increasing the National Minimum Wage and cutting tax for low paid workers is the right thing to do. But we think a new Career Advancement Service, giving people a Career Coach and personal budget to boost their career, is urgently needed;
•    Personal Career Accounts. We need employers and individuals to invest more in their own skills. So we’d like the principle of Help to Buy ISAs, where the Government tops up people’s savings towards a deposit, extended to learning too – a kind of Help to Train ISA; and
•    Apprentice Charter. The growth in Apprenticeships is welcome, but there are concerns about quality. We think we need an Apprentice Charter, co-designed by employers and Apprentices, to act as a quality mark.

The growth in employment and Apprenticeships over the last five years are welcome, and we need to continue these. But it will take more than this to boost growth and living standards and meet the skills needs of the future. Manifestos can’t say everything, so this is where the meat of a programme for Government will stand.