Recession-proof skills – there’s no such thing, other than plumbing

One of the great conundrums of our time – what is education for? – is back on the agenda.

As an eternally grateful recipient of lots of it, or at least the post-18 stuff, I used to think it was a terrific opportunity to read a great deal, drink even more and have a first-class social life. And that was just for the faculty.

Well never mind. Even if the 1970s are back in vogue, that sort of thinking is not. Education now has to have a pragmatic purpose, in particular it must, so it seems, prepare youngsters for the jobs market rather than seek to expand their minds and develop thinking and questioning attitudes.

For new-style education as utility thinking look no further than the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). It has called for publicly funded education and training providers to “recession proof” learners by making them more employable.

It states that “although some schools, colleges, universities and training providers prepare their students well for the workplace, too many do not, and employers have to spend time and money on new recruits to give them everyday skills, such as how to take a phone message or write a new report”.

How long does it take to train someone to take a telephone message? Ten minutes tops, I’d say, if they’re literate. If they’re not then they’re in the wrong job. Is this what schools should focus on? I think not.

Fundamentally, the role of schools is to do their level best to ensure that pupils are numerate, literate, presentable and have varying degrees of knowledge of core areas. They are not there to provide a production line of youngsters who are workplace ready. Admittedly, this changes post-16 when more learning related to skills and professional aspirations takes place, but even so, the UKCES’s pleas for colleges and schools to “recession-proof” learners is little short of bonkers.

Markets and technologies are continually evolving and changing so that skills come and go – look no further than the demise of the bus conductor or the computer operator.

The most useful recessionary proof skills that youngsters can have – apart from training as a plumber, of course – are related to attitudes and soft skills, such as time management. The realisation that work demands self discipline, a willingness to change, punctuality, and the ability to put up with boredom is far more useful over time than being able to take a phone message.

Also, how does the UKCES explain away the fact that millions of people with skills that they would have deemed recession proof are out of work and struggling to find jobs?

There is no such thing as a really recession-proof skill. The truth is that some skills are more in demand than others at particular times.

The CBI’s director-general Richard Lambert says the organisation’s members “consistently say” that too many new recruits lack the skills they need to enter the world of work. Isn’t it up to employers to train these people if they want to take them on?

Air stress

Anyone who has spent time in a UK airport will have travelled to the darkest heart of stress. Queues, delays, lost luggage, lost tempers and the odd terrorist attack help provide the perfect breeding ground for stress.

Well relief could be at hand, at least for airport staff. Managers at Birmingham Airport are to be trained in recognising and dealing with stress before the busy Easter period. They’ll learn how to spot stress symptoms among staff and handle them appropriately. I’d say a cup of mint tea and a strong talking to should suffice.

But isn’t this addressing the symptoms not the cause? The airport should focus on passenger stress. Apart from banning cheap flights in their entirety, a good start would be to get rid of petty security restrictions such as those on plastic bottles. It’s a continuing nonsense.

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