Rachel Reeves

Member of Parliament for Leeds West

My LabourList article - Let’s close the skills gap

Last week I wrote an article for LabourList on why we must close the skills gap. 

You can read the full article by clicking here. 


This summer thousands of young people will leave school without the skills or qualifications they need to find a job with decent pay and prospects.

A staggering 42 per cent of young people are leaving school without C or above in GCSE maths and 36 per cent are falling short of this standard in English. The CBI recently reported that over a quarter of firms who needed technicians qualified in science, technology, engineering or maths find it hard to recruit. And 58% of firms say that the skills gap is getting worse.

Poor skills are a key reason why young people are now three times more likely to be unemployed than older generations, as well as making up a disproportionate share of the growing number of workers earning less than a living wage.

So if we want to build a more productive economy, achieve genuine full employment, and stimulate social mobility, we have to target the skills gaps that are holding back workers and businesses.

The difference this can make to people’s lives is immeasurable. I vividly remember the pride when a young painter-decorator at Hackney College told me about the help he had received for his dyslexia. Not only could he now read the instructions on a tin of paint, but he could actually enjoy the newspaper he had previously carried to work simply to “look the part”.

Of course, the main answer must lie in improving our schools and colleges. But the social security system must play its part too. That means offering a second chance and providing the right support and incentives to people who, for whatever reason, are let down by our education system or fall through the cracks.

Today school leavers who can’t find a job find themselves in an adult benefit system that does little to improve their employability or chances of progression. 70 per cent of young people claiming Jobseekers Allowance have skills below level three. But rather than helping them to get the skills they need, our benefit system actually stops them from getting training while looking for work.

That makes it more likely that any work they find will be low skilled, low-paid and short-lived. Seven out of ten young people making a claim for Jobseekers Allowance are doing so for the second time. That shows the benefits system is failing to get people off benefits and into work for the long-term.

Without early intervention to tackle critical skills gaps, many of these young people are likely to spend decades going between unemployment and insecure, low-paid work – a major cost to the taxpayer in benefits and lost tax revenues, and a massive lost opportunity to our economy which could be making so much more of their potential.

That’s why 12 months ago Labour proposed ending entitlement to adult benefits for 18-21-year-olds who don’t have the skills or experience they need to get steady and sustainable work. Instead, those who can’t be supported by their parents would get a Youth Allowance requiring them to train at the same time as looking for work or their benefits would be stopped.

The Tories promised to replace JSA for young people with a “Youth Allowance” in the election with little detail on how the policy would work. Labour will look carefully at the proposals the government brings forward in the Queens Speech this week.

But there is no time to waste. Unless ministers act quickly to close Britain’s skills gap and ensure young people are properly prepared to play their part and pay their way, we will all be left poorer.

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