The skills speech by the prime minister – which explicitly sets out a plan to create new training opportunities for the 2.5 million people who the Bank of England believes could be left unemployed by Christmas – sounded many excellent notes.
The best, however, was his commitment to roll out boot camps as a way to boost the UK’s digital skills in preparation for what we must surely hope will be a tech-led national revival.
Boris Johnson and his team are correct to zoom in on this sector: prior to the pandemic, it was growing at six times the rate of the wider UK economy, and even now, in the midst of the Covid-19 recession, some 90,000 new job vacancies a week are being advertised.
One of the companies I chair – QA – has been involved in piloting the digital boot camps in the north west, including those funded by the government and mentioned by the PM in his speech. This is how I know that they work.
Unlike traditional college and classroom based-training, these programmes are intensive and last only 12 weeks. Students are given focussed training that is specifically tailored to precise occupations, such as software or development and operations, that make them work-ready in the UK’s growing tech sector.
Companies know that the people coming out of these boot camps can do the jobs they need, so they move in and hoover up the graduating students, putting them straight into their workforces. I’ve seen people go from having an interest in software development, but no formal qualifications, to gaining a job in a booming industry paying £30,000 or more, within the space of three months.
Another reason that ministers might like them is that digital bootcamps are attractive to a range of people for whom more traditional training, or a university degree, or even a formal apprenticeship, wouldn’t be right. As such they are a good fit for those who have just lost their jobs, but who have families or commitments, and are not in a position simply to drop everything.
The models run by QA – and others – require no fees to be covered by the learner upfront; and they can be delivered in towns and cities all over the UK, and even virtually, meaning people don’t have to move. In addition, they actively target potential students based on aptitude rather than educational background or prior attainment. All of these features mean that they are attractive to a whole group of people for whom the tech sector would otherwise seem like a far-away dream. They have significant potential in levelling the playing field. Indeed, it’s possible to design boot camps specifically targeted at particular groups, such as coding for women or development and operations for veterans.
Of course, this roll-out of boot camps must be done properly – we need to design the courses carefully and work closely with local employers to ensure they are filling the gaps that are needed in those particular labour markets – but I can’t help but think that ministers could be even more ambitious in terms of timing and scale. There is absolutely no reason why we need to wait before extending these programmes across all regions of the nation, rather than just starting with a few select areas.
The chancellor and the team around him have moved with astonishing speed in delivering a number of hugely complicated initiatives since the coronavirus struck and I believe we must move with the same pace when it comes to digital boot camps. With a similar “Nightingale” level of ambition, the first of these boot camps could be receiving new students by Christmas.
The digital jobs are there, the unemployment crisis is now. Let’s not waste any time.
Sir Charlie Mayfield is the chairman of digital education and skills provider QA Limited