Investing in People

We have all got used to the wonders of Zoom (or Teams if you prefer) over the last couple of years. It may have made academic life as we were used to it viable during the pandemic, but it has its downsides, as I discovered this week. Firstly, much though I feel committed to reducing my carbon footprint, there are times when meeting in person makes an enormous difference. Eighteen months ago I wrote about what I felt we, as academics, lost when we could not meet. That was of course while Omicron was still rampaging and in person felt a distant dream for most. For local meetings I am totally in favour of sticking with in person unless Covid intervenes, as it did for me a couple of weeks ago (finally).

And it was due to being laid low by Covid that I did not go to London to present evidence in person to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last week, but relied on Zoom. Sadly, this went awry. My laptop audio decided to pack up at the crucial moment and I missed the first fifteen minutes or so of the hour-long session. Hence, if you listen to the recording of the evidence, my first words are an apology. Not how I would have wanted to come across, particularly as I was left somewhat disconcerted by the hiccough and, since I was using someone else’s laptop, disorganised with regard to my notes.

This was a sessionfor their enquiry on People and Skills in UK STEM. A topic of great importance, and covering a wide swathe of issues. The session I was in was focussed on skills in the workforce; the following session more on university researchers, including issues of precarity. I don’t want to rehearse all the arguments I made there, including the importance of those who don’t follow a linear trajectory through GCSE, A Levels and hence to university, the need for FE Colleges to be well-funded, and the issues about women being discouraged from entering the STEM disciplines by societal expectations. You can listen to me on Parliament.TV and read my written submission to the enquiry if you want to know more. But I would like to highlight one point I made about the importance of employers investing in their own to upskill them.

Churchill College occupies a large site in Cambridge (45 acres I believe, the largest single site of any of the Cambridge colleges) and houses a large number of students on site. It is therefore incumbent on us to have appropriately large Estates and Maintenance teams. We also have many ‘60’s buildings, concrete and bricks in a brutalist style, with flat roofs. Flat roofs are excellent for installing solar panels on and, in our case much to our advantage, we also have copper parapets which rise slightly above the roofline. All this means, as we work around the College refurbishing the various courts, we are well-placed to install solar panels (plus plenty of a modern standard of insulation) to reduce our dependence on gas (the parapet’s advantage is it largely makes these invisible from the ground, making planning permission easier).

However, installation of solar panels does not come cheap and pay-back time tends to be well over a decade. In the College’s case, though, a decision was taken to upskill members of the maintenance team to be able to carry out the installation themselves and this is what they were able to do over the summer over an extensive area of roof. We are now able to generate 200,000kWh per annum from these installations, and are aiming for 750,000kWh of solar power on site per year by 2026. By using our own team, the pay-back time is cut right back to 4-5 years.  This is obviously great from the point of view of our carbon footprint and energy bills, but the pride our team take in this work is equally great. It demonstrates the importance in investing in employees, offering them the opportunity to upskill. You can read more about this and other in-house work to improve sustainability in our operations here.

Of course, not every employer is in a position to act in an equivalent way, but as a nation we do really badly on this front. A recent IFS report highlighted a 38% reduction in spending on adult education and apprenticeships over the last decade. There is an even greater drop (50%) in spending on classroom-based adult education.  We have a new PM about to take over, so we will have to wait to see if the phrase ‘levelling up’ re-enters the political lexicon, or whether we are now simply talking about ‘growth’, but whatever jargon is attached to this problem, if we are to drive innovation and improve our productivity, we need to make sure that we invest, not just in those heading for high-powered research jobs, but those others who make so much difference to operations at different levels in all kinds of organisations.

The trouble is that skills is a word that encompasses so much (the same might be said of levelling up), and it is a heterogeneous landscape. Robert West from the CBI, with whom I was paired in the evidence session, pointed out that apprenticeships are only one route of acquiring new skills (and very often actually these may be at a degree level or even masters anyhow) and in the Lords enquiry he wanted to stress that the solution cannot simply sit with adjusting the apprenticeship levy scheme. It is clear to me that further education colleges have a key role to play – and more particularly if they were properly resourced – to ensure that those who aren’t suited to the degree (i.e. Level 6) route have alternatives that will still equip them with vital skills.

In England, a 2018 Government report showed that only 4 per cent of 25-year-olds hold a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification as their highest level. Much higher numbers either don’t get beyond Level 3 or go on to achieve a Level 6 qualification, with figures for around 30% for both.  In contrast, in Germany, Level 4 and 5 makes up 20 per cent of all higher education enrolments. These people with intermediate skills are often crucial for technical roles – in universities or in factories or SMEs driving innovative processes – and there is a shortage of such people. This was highlighted in the 2021 Royal Society report on the research and technical workforce in the UK, as also in earlier work for the Gatsby Foundation by Paul Lewis.

I will look forward to seeing the final report from the Lords Committee, and also how investment in education and skills plays out under the new PM.  Meanwhile Churchill College will continue to invest in its workforce, employing apprentices (as we always have) and helping to upskill others in ways that work for them.



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