Why the conversation about economic growth must focus on skills

How can we create a thriving economy where we all benefit, and nobody is left behind?

In the lead up to the Week of VocTech 2022, and the "in conversation" event with RSA CEO Andrew Haldane, Ufi's CEO, Rebecca Garrod-Waters, reflects on the current economic climate and why equitable access to skills, enabled by technology, is vital to building a thriving economy.


There is an unprecedented crisis in the UK’s economic landscape, with widening regional disparities, high inflation, increasing interest rates, sluggish productivity, and the reverberations from the Covid pandemic. There is also an ongoing crisis in the labour market, with massive shifts in participation rates, immigration patterns and skills demand.

What role does skills policy play in the solution to these crises, and how can we utilise the very best technology to support those furthest from opportunity in gaining access to vocational education?

What is the positive vision for the UK? Are we really stuck in an unprecedented crisis or is this a unique opportunity for positive system wide change that harnesses technology to improve skills and create a more equitable economy?

We can all agree that we are in an economic situation that is unlike any we have faced before. Not only are we dealing with an uncertain global landscape, in the aftermath of a pandemic, but we are also experiencing domestic instability with an excessive focus on the short-term issues and challenges.

What does this mean for society? We know that we should all benefit from a return to growth – a growing economy can support a fair society, but we also know that thinking on growth is often separate to thinking about equity and society. This can lead to short-term interventions rather than broader strategic thinking and runs the risk of focussing on specific skills interventions that do not recognise the importance of a whole skills supply chain approach.

If we are to succeed in re-igniting growth and ensuring a more equitable future for all, we have to start with a skills system that is designed for all.

The recent CMI report ‘The Everyone Economy’ picks up on the importance of diversity and inclusion as part of this strategy – it rightly notes that the central tenant of the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda is that we as a nation will be more prosperous when opportunity is shared more widely and more fairly across all the UK’s communities.

Unfortunately, the figures on adult participation in learning are disheartening. Current statistics from the Learning and Work Institute show that participation has remained stubbornly low over the last 12 months, with only 8% of adults who left school at 16 intending to learn in the future.

With engagement in learning at rock bottom levels, it is important to note the broader impact of valued and valuable work. The mental health benefits of work are well documented, helping to provide structure and purpose for people as well as a wider engagement with society. If we develop a skills system that is designed to provide good quality opportunity and access for everyone, particularly those often seen as less economically important, we can achieve increased wellbeing, a more successful society and increasing levels of growth and productivity.

If we are going to tackle the challenge of economic growth in an equitable way, then we need to make sure we have the right focus on skills. Too often policies and approaches have targeted only higher-level skills, or regions and industries seen as ‘high-growth’. What this fails to recognise, is that...

...the skills that underpin growth are the core vocational skills that drive our economy every day.

Economic growth comes from a better skilled workforce – and that means every part of that workforce. At Ufi, we have supported a wide range of organisations developing technology that is focussed on adult skills and supporting those that are often over-looked in education investment. We know that technology and vocational skills can improve access and opportunity for everyone and will have long-term positive benefits for individuals, industry, and society as a whole.

There is agreement in every quarter that economic growth is essential, and we do not have a hope of achieving it if we don’t address the skills crisis and improve access to work throughout the labour market. Equitable growth requires a skills system that is designed for all, where technology is developed and deployed in ways that ensure those traditionally far from opportunity are seen as a priority, and which integrates the needs of employers with the needs of learners to create a better society.

Afterall, skills are a critical societal issue – not something that is optional, but the key opportunity for growth that, if unrealised, becomes the boulder that fatally holds back efforts to develop and grow the UK economy. At Ufi we understand and can demonstrate how tech can transform the way we acquire skills and in turn create a thriving economy where we all benefit and nobody is left behind.

Rebecca Garrod-Waters
CEO, Ufi VocTech Trust

Join the discussion

You can watch the discussion between Rebecca and the RSA's Andrew Haldane online on Thursday 17th November by registering here.

The event is taking place as part of the Week of VocTech 2022, a free programme of in-person and online events exploring the role of digital technology in vocational training and celebrating its impact on learners, employers, training providers and society as a whole.