Innovative spirit needed to retrain furloughed workers

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This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Times on 28 August 2020.

Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s economy secretary, has warned that the country is “facing unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1980s” as the furlough scheme begins to end and each day brings news of job losses. While we don’t yet know the full impact of the coronavirus and lockdown on the labour market in Scotland, we must not wait until we have all the answers to start addressing the impending jobs crisis.

Retraining is a key part of recovery and this week Reform Scotland published a report, Back on Track: Retraining in the Covid-19 Era. While there are no silver bullets, it is clear that the Scottish government cannot work in isolation. The business community needs to be involved at the heart of decision making; they are where new jobs are to be found, economic recovery will take place, and tax revenues increase to fund public services. Local authorities, the third sector, unions and the higher and further education sectors also have crucial roles to play.

Partnership working is vital not just within Scotland, but between the UK and Scottish governments. Unemployment is an issue where both governments have a degree of responsibility. For proposals to be as effective as they can be, the two governments must work in tandem.

There should also be a major expansion of individual training accounts. These programmes allow those who are furloughed to access training and start planning ahead if they are unable to return to their present work. Such opportunities should be encouraged, but the programme covers less than 1 per cent of the 736,500 people in Scotland who were furloughed.

While there are huge opportunities from embracing technology through online learning and virtual platforms, there needs to be a recognition that the shift online requires greater use not just of devices, but access to data and private space. Schemes should be developed which look to embrace innovative ideas that help to meet those needs — for example, enabling rooms in public buildings to be booked free of charge by individuals, alongside access to data and a device, to enable them to access online interviews or training. At the start of the pandemic we saw innovative ideas implemented to bolster the NHS; we now need to mobilise that spirit to help the economy recover.