Leitch Review skills targets doomed as UK lags behind competitors, report warns

The UK will fail to meet its Leitch Review target to train at least 90% of the workforce to Level 2 by 2020, a major study by the commission created to improve skills has admitted.

Ten years before the Leitch deadline, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has predicted the country’s skills base is “unlikely to improve, let alone become world class,” by 2020, unless radical action is taken by government, employers and individuals to increase qualification take-up.

Just 77% of UK workers will be qualified to Level 2 (the equivalent of five GCSEs) in 11 years time – up 18% from 2005 but still at least 12% short of the target required, based on current progress levels. The UK will not achieve its Level 3 target either, which specified that 68% of the UK’s workforce must hold such qualifications by 2020, the report predicted.

The international skills gap will widen, rather than close, the Ambition 2020: World Class Skills and Jobs for the UK report found. In 2020, the UK is likely to be ranked 23rd out of 30 countries on Level 2 skills – six places lower than its position now. It will drop from 18th place to 21st place on intermediate Level 3 skills; and fall from 10th on the list for high Level 4 skills from 12th place now, failing to be ranked among the top quartile (top eight) of countires on any skills level as Leitch had desired, the report said.

Mike Campbell, author of the report and UKCES director of policy and research,  told Personnel Today urgent action was needed to get the UK back on track to meet Leitch targets. He said: “Skills is acting as something of a drag on the UK’s performance. Yes, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we still rank 12th in high level skills and 17th in low level skills. That’s someway short of where we need to be. The UK is not catching on.”

However, Campbell, an adviser to the Leitch Review, stressed the UK had made progress in some areas. The country will meet its high-level skills target to train more than 40% of the workforce in Level 4, and 95% of adults will be literate by 2020, he said. “It’s good news and bad news. If you compare progress over the years I think there is a very good story. Though, when you put it in international context, which is what Leitch did and what we are doing, it’s then you realise the progres you’ve made is not good enough relative to the top eight countries.”


Yet Campbell refused to pin the lack of progress on Level 2 on the recession, stating it was “more of a fear than a reality” that the economic downturn had forced employers to avoid providing staff with state-funded training. Instead, he warned it would take many years before significant improvements were made, and insisted the targets were achievable. He called on HR managers to play a key role in skilling up staff. “I know everybody, including government, journalists, and even me, wants things to happen extremely quickly but this is a long term engrained issue which is why Leitch set out his targets right up until 2020. It’s not a quick fix, it’s not easy,” he said. “HR needs to make its case to the Board why improving skills now will add value to their [company’s] bottom line in the long run.”

Mike Rake, chairman of the Commission, added: “The key to our economic renewal is to invest in human capital now – to deploy energy and resources in building the UK’s skills base.”

The Commission estimated that to get into the top eight countries, individuals would need to achieve 20 million more qualifications – the equivalent of more than one qualification for every second adult of working age.

Commission’s recommendations

The Commission’s role, Campbell said, was to suggest how the UK can achieve its skills ambition. As such a five-point plan has been outlined:

  • Create a clear and integrated cross-government strategy for economic transformation and renewal
  • Develop a simpler, more agile and demand-led skills and employment system
  • Build employer ambition to compete globally as highly skilled organisations
  • Transform individuals’ aspirations, maximising motivation and opportunity for everyone to develop their talents
  • Support better integration of skills into economic development activity

Campbell conceded many of these proposals echoed those suggested by Lord Leitch in December 2006, but that was because it took time for them to filter through into reality. The UKCES was making headway in relicensing sector skills councils to help meet employers’ demands, the government had already increased flexibility in its skills brokerage service Train to Gain and employers were beginning to offer more apprentices, he said.

Skills secretary John Denham said: “The report vindicates our long held position that investment in skills is key to our future prosperity and should be a priority for individuals and employers as well as government. However, many of its projections are based on 2006 data and assume no further action will be taken by government. And, we have already acted decisively on the five key priorities for government identified by the commission.”

Background: Leitch Review

The 2006 Leitch Review called on government, employers and individuals to help the UK achieve world class skills by 2020. Without doing so the UK faced a bleak economic future, the report said. One of the key steps, accepted by the government, was the ‘skills pledge’. Employers were asked to voluntarily sign the pledge, committing to train eligible employees to Level 2 by 2010. 90% of the workforce should be trained in Level 2 by 2020, the report said.

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