Interview: Jamie Hepburn on plugging the skills gap

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 30 March 2017 in Inside Politics

Holyrood talks to employability and training minister Jamie Hepburn about breaking gender stereotypes and getting the skilled workforce Scotland needs

Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Employability and Training - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

“What did I want to be when I was younger?” says Jamie Hepburn, rather nervously.

The Minister for Employability and Training pauses for what seems like an eternity, perhaps searching for something that won’t come back to haunt him at Portfolio Questions.

“I knew I wanted to do something that I would enjoy, so I probably went through various stages, as many youngsters did, from wanting to be a footballer, to being a policeman, to being a train driver, all the things that kids aspire to be.

“Actually, I think if I’m perfectly honest right now, I’d still love to have been a footballer but I wasn’t good enough, too slow.

“I certainly didn’t aspire to be a politician, far less a member of the Scottish Parliament.”


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All safe choices, although the image of Hepburn hobbling up the left wing at Broadwood Stadium leaves room for some gentle prodding.

However, it is notable that he did not want to work in social care, childcare, software development, science, technology, engineering or maths – all major skills gaps in Scotland that the Scottish Government is trying to plug with its labour market strategy.

How does the Scottish Government bridge the gap between the ‘jobs we need’ and ‘jobs we want’, shatter the stereotypes of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’, and put ‘white collar degree’ and ‘blue collar apprenticeship’ on an equal footing?

“We want to create more jobs here in Scotland, but we want them to be good quality, well rewarded jobs, both in the sense of being well remunerated but also fulfilling for people,” he told Holyrood.

“We need to ensure that we attract such jobs, that the opportunities exist, but also that we equip our population with the relevant skillset to fill such positions.

“We obviously undertake a range of efforts with various sector skills councils, through Skills Development Scotland, talking directly to industry, to hear what they have got to say about what their skills requirements are for their specific sectors.

“That can help us forecast what might be required, but some of them are probably self-evident in terms of increased utilisation of digital technologies.

“We need to make sure that our population is tech-savvy and equipped to be embracing those opportunities that that sector will increasingly provide in the future.

“Some of the opportunities that we will have in terms of skills requirements are also predicated on policies that we are implementing.

“If you look at early years and childcare with our ambition to expand that significantly – we’re going to need people to work in that sector.

“If you look at changed demographics, there is going to be increased requirements for people to work in the social care sector.”

Hepburn is determined that the emerging jobs in social care and childcare are not pitched solely at women, but recognises there is a “massive challenge” in overcoming gender stereotypes.

“It’s not just about women, although I would certainly recognise that the caring responsibility primarily does fall upon women right now, in comparison to men,” he said.

“The expansion of early years childcare can allow for people to better access the labour market than might otherwise be the case at other points in time, certainly historically.

“In order for that to be meaningful, I and my colleague Mark McDonald, Minister for Early Years, are very alert to the fact that we need to not only expand childcare, but make sure that it is as flexible as possible, and as accessible as possible for those who stand to benefit by it.

“This is where employers have an important role to play, not only in terms of their flexibility in terms of supporting those who work for them.

“Incidentally, not only does this have benefits for the employees – which is fairly self-evident – but also for them as an employer, because if you’re flexible with your workforce, not only are you going to have reduced absenteeism and retention rates, you will have a motivated workforce that is more productive for you.

“Employers can also play a helpful role in helping to identify where there is going to be significant pockets of people in the workforce, either with one employer or clusters of employers located in a specific location with significant numbers of parents working there.

“How can they help ensure that provision is as close as possible to where those groups of parents are going to be?

“If you’ve got a business park where there is a lot of parents working, why can’t we get a childcare provider within that business park?

“These are the things that we have got to think about creatively. If we get that right, that can certainly help get families – mothers and fathers – back into the workforce.”

He added: “There is some work underway, in a variety of ways through developing the young workforce strategy, to challenge the preconceptions that certain subject matters are for boys and certain subject matters for girls.

“Within our Modern Apprenticeship framework, we’re seeking to ensure that under-represented groups – and women have historically been an under-represented group in terms of the numbers taking part in Modern Apprenticeships – is significantly improved.

“Skills Development Scotland has published an equality action plan to try and take forward further work in that regard.

“There are far more women taking part in our Modern Apprenticeship programme, but we need to get beneath that and we also need to be candid and probably recognise that, despite the fact that there are more taking part, within certain frameworks and certain occupations, there is still this gender segregation that tends to be deployed and used.

“It all starts in the school environment. In fact, it starts before the school environment.

It’s often rather ‘softer’ stuff that begins in infancy, in terms of the types of toys that we buy for our children, how we interact with the young boys, as opposed to young girls.

“We’re all probably guilty of it, because we’ve all grown up in such an environment, and we need to always be cognisant of the fact that how we interact with young people from a very early age is going to determine what happens to them later in life, including this whole set of assumptions about what’s work for men and work for women.

“I would readily concede that there is only so much that we can do, that it’s not about being an overarching, overbearing influence over the whole environment.

“Clearly there is a lot of work underway, through expansion of early years childcare, that can help influence it through the very early years, through developing the young workforce, there is more we can do as youngsters transition through the various stages of school.

“But there is also more we can do collectively. Employers can also be on the front foot talking about the benefits to young men for getting involved, and getting a good career, in childcare or vice versa, speaking to young women about the significant benefits of getting involved in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sector which is a particularly important sector for our future economy.”

Reflecting on his early ambitions, Hepburn, probably wisely, steered clear of saying he wanted to be a rock god, Hollywood megastar or, in the spirit of gender diversity, Beyonce.

But these are the aspirations that employers and government are going to have to manage in a generation weaned on The X Factor if they are going to align education with the requirements of the workforce without crushing the dreams of those with the talent to make it.

“I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone should be an engineer,” says Hepburn.

“Our creative industries are a critical part of our economic landscape, so we will always be keen to do what we can to support education provision that allows for people to aspire to get involved in the creative industries.

“I think we do that in a variety of ways. We continue, for example, to fund world-leading education and provision of music and drama through the Royal Conservatoire.

“We’ve got many fine arts schools, and if you look at modern elements of the creative industries, through the computer games industry in Dundee, and we support opportunities there as well, so I would contest any suggestion that there isn’t provision of support for such sectors.”

Hepburn borrows a well-worn phrase from PM Harold Macmillan on the difficulties of being in government: “Events, dear boy, events.”

Hepburn said: “Events arise in life, and certainly in politics, and certainly in terms of impacting the economy, so we need to make sure that we are responsive to that change.

“The [labour market] strategy was launched in August, but had been developed for quite a few months before, and you will recall an event on June 23 that could dramatically change some of our starting assumptions.

“The most obvious challenge from Brexit comes from the various funding streams that are available through European Social Fund money.

“We know that a whole variety of training opportunities, employability opportunities, that are provided by a range of organisations that we provide funding to, such as SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations) for our Community Jobs Scotland fund, particularly working with those furthest removed from the jobs market.

“A lot of these initiatives of that type can draw down European funding, so there is a very obvious and direct challenge in terms of the longer term.

“We’ve had some supposed reassurances about funding up until 2020, but what happens from 2021 onwards, where these pots of funding will not be available, or whatever equivalent funding has been guaranteed so far.

“Right now, there are opportunities for Scottish students to go … for Erasmus programmes. If we can’t continue to access them, that might limit opportunities for some of those students as well.”

But isn’t Brexit supposed to unlock opportunities for British workers? Boris Johnson insisted Brexit would refocus the UK jobs market on “the basis of skills” rather than “the basis of where people come from”.

Hepburn said: “They would say that, wouldn’t they.

“There’s nothing to stop that happening now, and indeed, that often does happen. We see that in the NHS.

“So I don’t see why the two should be mutually exclusive, and I’ve not seen any hard and fast proposals thus far from the Brexiteers, from the UK Government, laying out that such a framework would be put in place.”

He added: “I think the challenge is greater than the opportunity.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that folk who are coming here are adding to our economy, rather than detracting from opportunities for folk here.

“If it were otherwise, why am I still hearing from industries who have skills shortages?”

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