Britain’s trouble with skills was a key focus of the news agenda last week, with one particularly lively moment in the Commons providing a wry and punchy take on the issue.
In a 30 January speech that was shared widely online, Labour MP Jess Phillips slammed government proposals to implement a post-Brexit annual-earnings threshold of £30,000 to determine whether or not future immigrants from the EU are skilled. 
Acknowledging the Birmingham Yardley population she represents, Phillips told the House: “The idea that my constituents are not skilled because they do not earn over £30,000 is frankly insulting. It is insulting on every level to our care workers, our nurses, our teachers. There are so many people who do not earn over £30,000. I really think that that [earnings threshold] needs to be revisited.”
Phillips added: “Since I was elected, I have met many people who earn way more than £30,000, and have literally no discernible skills – not even one … I would not let some of those very rich people who earn huge amounts of money hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar – because they would almost certainly do it wrong.”
Phillips’ implied critique of the UK’s poor record on social mobility for lower-earning workers could not have been timelier. The previous day, a report from the Social Mobility Commission revealed that about 30% of those employed in managerial and professional occupations took part in training in the past three months, compared to just 18% of those in routine and manual jobs.  As it announced the findings, the Commission reminded the press of earlier research it produced, which showed that 49% of adults from the lowest socio-economic group receive no training whatsoever after leaving school.
In a column for FE Week, Commission representative Alastair Da Costa – chair of the Capital City College Group – wrote: “Without the money or access to resources that wealthier people take for granted, those in low-income or workless households face an uphill struggle to break out of the cycle of poverty … People are losing hope. The Commission’s 2018 Social Mobility Barometer survey found that 47% of 18 to 65 year olds feel that where you end up in society is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are.” 
On 31 January, further research from the City & Guilds Group showed that 76% of the workforce believe it is important to continuously update their workplace skills regardless of either age or career stage. However, less than half (46%) are getting enough help and support from their employers to develop the workplace skills they need. 
With all of these concerning findings in mind, what should leaders be doing to transform the prospects of low earners by ensuring they can access the skills and training they need – and perhaps develop leadership skills themselves?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “From these figures, it seems that what we are doing is developing people who have already enjoyed significant investment in their development. If we think about the number of graduates who enter the workforce, these are the people who are most likely to sign up for further, work-based skills and training courses, and to be in the types of jobs that are most closely associated with leadership development programmes.”
Clearly, Cooper notes, there are factors that are inhibiting this learning from being more widely available. “One of those factors,” she says, “is that we are still engaging with high-end, formal development programmes – and from the moment those sorts of courses get underway, they become very expensive for the organisations that are taking them. On the other hand, leaving staff to their own devices and encouraging them to e-learn outside the workplace doesn’t really count as a sufficient investment in their progress.”
Cooper stresses: “In the vast majority of cases, people want to learn. They also recognise development as a non-financial benefit and are prepared to invest their own time and effort in the process. But that effort must be supported. While e-learning is a great way to start, it won’t cover everything that staff will need to know. As leaders, we have to make space for people to learn at their own pace.”
She points out: “Jane Hart – founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies  – has been saying for some time that learning should be individually driven and can also be very informal. That’s true. But leaders must support that style of learning in a way that ensures it is valued and recognised, and brings the learner tangible benefits. Those benefits don’t necessarily have to be financial: they could take the form of increased responsibility. So, organisations can play an active role in helping people to learn in that fashion, rather than simply assuming that formal training courses are the answer.”
Cooper adds: “For people who haven’t succeeded at school, vocational education is a brilliant pathway. There is a practical relevance to it. People can see what it means to them, and their prospects, in the here and now. The new apprenticeships are a real attempt to harness that; to engage people who haven’t felt at home with more abstract, theoretical types of learning, but have a real propensity for applied learning. The beauty of apprenticeships is that the employer creates an environment in which that learning can be put immediately into practice. So, vocational education has a powerful role to play here.”