Ben Francis is Policy Chair at FSB Wales and Director of family-run housebuilding firm, Hygrove Homes, Swansea. Here he shares his thoughts on the importance of a skilled workforce for Welsh SMEs and the need for good post-compulsory education to ensure a prosperous economic and social future for Wales.
Roughly two thirds of the private sector workforce in Wales are employed by SMEs – this adds up to around 738,000 people in Wales. All of those private sector employers are seeking to recruit employees with the right skills, and have a huge stake in how we develop a strong skills-base in Wales.
The coronavirus pandemic has created an entirely new immediacy to the conversations we have about skills in Wales. With the huge move to home working in recent months - and with many firms planning a more permanent move to remote working in some shape or form – we know that digital skills are going to become increasingly important for individuals and businesses across the country.
In a recent FSB webinar on skills provision in Wales, panellists discussed the impact of the pandemic on the skills landscape, as well as reflecting on the existing skills needs of Wales’ businesses. People may be faced with needing to reskill and move out of a sector that they have spent a significant amount of time working in due to the impact of the pandemic on their industry. Young people who leave school or college this year are looking at a 50-year career, and we can only begin to imagine how that career will change in the coming years. This represents a huge question for a future Welsh Government to answer.
With the Senedd elections now only a matter of months away, there is an opportunity for the next Welsh Government to reset the conversation on post-compulsory education and training with a focus on the economic and social outcomes that we want to achieve, and how the public and private sector can work together to achieve this.
At FSB we believe that this starts with schools. We’ve called for Welsh Government to unlock the National Ambition behind the Welsh economy and develop the links between business and schools. It should be as natural for a student to consider starting a business at it is for them to think about further education, training or traditional employment. If we do this, then we encourage teachers and pupils to think about a wider skill set, and we develop a next generation of individuals with the transferable skills needed for a whole range of employment and self-employment opportunities.
During the pandemic, FSB heard from businesses who feel that the traditional idea of a five-year plan has been completely thrown out of the water. In our report A Skilful Wales we highlighted that only a third of SMEs had a formal training plan and only a fifth have budget allocated to training. These issues are only going to be exacerbated by the pandemic for the longer that it goes on for.
We’re also concerned about the experiential learning that is being lost through the pandemic – work experience has been almost written off for this year, and this will have a big impact on the skills levels of pupils and post-16 learners in the coming years. We would like to see Higher and Further Education providers working with the private sector to think innovatively about how we can fill these gaps as best we can, to help prepare people with the skills and experience that they need to begin their career.
The two questions hanging over Wales’ skills landscape for the coming years are about how we act in the short-term to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, coupled with a more long-term question about how we develop the skills we will all need in the future. These are very different, very complex questions for the next Welsh Government, and FSB looks forward to working with government, providers and businesses to begin to answer these questions.