Nadhim Zahawi's speech to the ConHome Future Jobs Conference.
I’m delighted to be able to attend the first of these new half-day events by Conservative Home. I have deep affection for Con Home: I’ve spoken at your events in the past, my great friend and partner Stephan Shakespeare used to be the proprietor of Con Home, and more recently your reporting, on my fantastic Schools Bill has been a timely reminder that you will report without fear or favour, which is exactly as it should be. I’m honoured to speak at this event, and I look forward to many more like it.
It’s also a real privilege to be here today in the RSA. I’m sure all of you here in the building will have seen that the full title of the RSA is the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I love this full title, because commerce and manufacture, and indeed all true capitalism, is inherently an art as much as a science. Capitalism is human, it is creative, it’s innovative and it’s moral.
For most of human history, extractive zero-sum relations between the powerful and the downtrodden were the norm, even in some places into the modern world. Karl Marx was a member of the RSA, and we all know the destruction that the Communist world view brings to economies just as it does to everything else. And as some of you may know, I was born in Baghdad and lived the first decade of my life under a genocidal dictator. Believe me, you don’t want the Government having as much control over society and the economy in the way that Saddam did, or that Marxists still yearn for today.
But here in the UK, not least thanks to the thinking of another RSA fellow, Adam Smith, the modern economy was born. A consenting exchange of goods and services, in a manner that brings benefit to both parties, has changed the world these last few hundred years in a way that few other revolutions have come close to. And we are all the beneficiaries of this.
We are so used to the miracles of markets; invention, scale, trust between strangers to name a few, that we are repeatedly at risk of squandering this inheritance. Turning on the wealth creators, the risk takers, is an easy and tempting thing for a politician to do. Just ask our friends in the Labour Party. It is also completely wrong.
Without commerce, without businesses big and small, we shall fall. There would be no money for our schools or hospitals, no dazzling innovations that push science and technology forward (including no vaccines!). And no hope for a better tomorrow.
And as a great woman once said, there is no such thing as Government money, there is only taxpayers’ money, and I hope that all of us appreciate the many ways in which businesses big and small contribute to our society.
So, whilst I’m here to talk about skills for the modern economy, I can’t do that without setting out my thanks for the worlds of commerce and manufactures. I know what it’s like to start and build a business. When I founded YouGov, I learned that when you start a company, you must quickly turn your hand to many different things, finance, HR, marketing, sales, you name it.
And I learned a lesson that has helped me throughout my career. The hardest thing to do in any organisation, public sector or private, is to scale it. The quicker I could hire someone with the right skills and empower them, the sooner I could pass responsibility on to them and focus on something else.
Scale is hard, my friends, and the only way to sustainably scale is by having the right people with the right skills. And in the real world, that means having people out there who have the ability to be productive and fulfilled in their work.
There is a golden thread that runs through all of this Government’s efforts to ensure that people have the skills they need to be successful and to be able to make a contribution.
And that thread is based on what I’ve been talking about so far – it is the understanding that you cannot develop a modern skills agenda without holding business close and taking your lead from them. In 2022, where sectors are born and crushed in double time, there’s no way we in the centre of Government can, or should, try to dictate the skills of the future.
David Cameron sent me to the DfE as the apprenticeships Tsar – we had a lot of Tsars in those days, although there’s one modern Tsar I know we all desperately want to see the back of…
When David Cameron sent me to the DfE for the first time, I knew we had to involve business. One of the most exciting results, building on the excellent work of Labour Peer Lord Sainsbury, is the T-Level.
You can see the badge on my lapel, no; it doesn’t stand for Tory Leader, but T -Level! A T Level is an exciting new option for post-16 students, and our first T -Levellers will be graduating this summer.
T -Levels are the future my friends, because they are the equivalent of 3 A -Levels, have been designed alongside industry, and require a 45 day in-work placement. You can take a T Level in areas such as Construction or Health and Science, and this year will see the launch of T Levels in Engineering and Manufacturing, and soon you can take a T -Level in agriculture and more.
I am building different runways for peoples’ careers to take off from. Because once you have completed a T-Level, you can go to university, you can start an apprenticeship, or a degree-apprenticeship, or you can join the world of work, clear eyed about what work looks like, and ready to take on the world.
Unit for Future Skills
To know with certainty what skills that world will need in the future is impossible. Tomorrow some genius, coming out of Imperial College London or a shed in their back garden, might invent a new widget that changes everything. But Government still makes investment assumptions, and it holds huge amounts of data to try to cater to these needs. Instead of hoarding this data, I have started the Unit for Future Skills that will pull data from across Whitehall, the DWP, HMRC and beyond and will publish all the data in regular cuts about what skills we calculate the economy will need.
This isn’t a planned economy – it’s the opposite; we will publish this data and the market can do what it wants with it. Some kids in a garage might slap and interface on it and make their fortune; some of you in the room may look and see a new career emerging. Data and transparency, my great ally in the vaccine deployment, will now be brought to bear on the economy of the future.
Graduate jobs announcement
I know from my time in the private sector, and also as a Minister in BEIS, that businesses know they will struggle to compete in the future without a pipeline of highly skilled employees. They are willing to pay well for this talent.
And all too often I hear employers’ frustrations with a limited pool of graduates, even though we are still seeing job ads that state graduate in the essential criteria.
So, I’m urging employers to think differently about their recruitment. Think about whether they really need someone with a degree. The chances are there will be someone with other relevant skills, experiences, or qualifications that they are looking for.
Lifelong Loan Entitlement
And it’s not just young people for whom skills will be increasingly relevant. It’s something that will be crucial to more mature learners too, to ensure the future success of the British economy in the 21st century. I’m super excited about the idea of what’s known as modular learning. That is, smaller rounds of upskilling and reskilling to help you adapt to the changing economy.
I met a young man called Usman recently, who had taught himself to code. But because he didn’t have any formal qualifications, he and his wife found themselves working for today’s sponsor, working in an Amazon distribution warehouse in Derby. Then he discovered Google Certificates, which credentialed his skills and allowed him to prove to employers how talented he was. He was able to show his employers that he could code python and Java, he’s moved in Amazon’s dev team and has a bright future for his family.
And we are developing our own support system for this retraining revolution. At the moment, it’s called the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. It’s a mouthful, I know, and I’m going to come up with a better name for it. I came up with YouGov so I’ll get a snappier title.
The LLE represents the Government backing people with £37,000 in today’s fees over the course of their lives to retrain at any point in their lives. It can be taken in one go, or drawn down in modules. For example, if you are listening to this and you work in Aberdeen oil and gas, but want to move into hydrogen, we will back you to retrain.
Ronald Reagan once said “Today, if you invent a better mousetrap, the government comes along with a better mouse.” But he also said “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.” I believe this to the very marrow of my bones.
I have tried to live it since this country gave me the opportunities only afforded in the United Kingdom, and I want it to be true for everyone else. We talk about “levelling up” in terms of investment in infrastructure, but if we are to make a success of levelling up, it must mean levelling up people, investing in them and giving them access to the opportunities and skills they need.
This country is the greatest in the world, it helped me make my dreams come true to go from a small boy hiding in the back of the classroom, unable to speak a word of English, to the Education Secretary in Her Majesty’s Government and Member of Parliament for Shakespeare. And I won’t rest until everyone, young or old, has the skills and opportunities they need to make their British Dream come true as well.