Jamie Hepburn: Fairness must be at the heart of skills policy

Written by Jamie Hepburn on 4 March 2019 in Comment

Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2019: Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills on putting fairness first

Jamie Hepburn - David Anderson/Holyrood

The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government is putting measures in place to make Scotland a fairer place to work for everyone who lives here. 

As Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, I am delighted with the progress that has been made, but I am concerned about the devastating impact Brexit will have on our economy and our labour market. 

Scotland’s unemployment rate reached a record low again in January, down to 3.6 per cent, lower than the UK rate of 4.0 per cent. The number of people unemployed in Scotland has now fallen below 100,000 for the first time on record.

Employment for women and young people in particular continues to be impressive in Scotland as we outperform the UK with a rate of 71.5 per cent for women, higher than the UK rate of 71.2 per cent, and 60.7 per cent for young people, higher than the UK rate of 56.0 per cent. 

We are delivering more apprenticeships in Scotland than ever before with a record 27,145 starts in 2017/18. This is an increase on the 26,262 starts in 2016/17 and also exceeds our annual target to provide 27,000 starts last year.

In 2017/18, 70 per cent of starts were aged between 16-24, so it’s clear our apprenticeships continue to play a crucial role in supporting young people to become skilled and employed in Scotland.

As encouraging as these figures are, we must not rest on our laurels. Delivering a fairer, prosperous economy is a priority for the Scottish Government. And I know it is a priority for businesses too. 

To achieve this, we want a fairer labour market and to continue to enhance the skills of our workforce. This year will see us bringing forward a range of measures designed to further upskill our workers and to help Scotland be the best performing nation possible.

While Scotland’s labour market is working well for most, there are still too many excluded from participating in employment. 

As a government, we want to do everything in our power to bring about positive change on this and, ultimately, ensure that everybody who can and wants to work has the opportunity to do so.

Fair work is central to this, and by that I mean employment that offers more security, decent pay and a greater voice for workers in the companies whose wealth they help create. I truly believe fair work is not only good for everyone but it drives innovation and productivity. 

It goes without saying 2018 saw real progress in using Scotland’s newly devolved powers. In particular, our devolved employment support service, Fair Start Scotland, launched in April and is already helping many thousands of people who want to find work and stay in work. 

The programme provides support to individuals who are furthest removed from the labour market. Between now and 2023, the service aims to support a minimum of 38,000 people across Scotland with personalised support as well as help businesses find the skilled and committed employees they need to thrive.

The fact that Fair Start Scotland operates on a voluntary basis means people can choose to participate, rather than being driven by the fear of sanctions. 

Combined with a clear emphasis on treating people with fairness, dignity and respect, this is something I know people value from the conversations I have with participants up and down the country. 

But there is more to be done. We are now working to deliver closer alignment and integration of the wider range of Scottish Government employability support services, and those of our delivery partners – creating the conditions to ensure people get the employment support that is right for them. 

This means joining employment support services with health, housing, justice and other areas to provide clearer pathways to sustainable employment by providing support for all facets of a person’s life and around the sometimes multiple barriers that have distanced them from the labour market. 

We know as good as our overall statistics are, and as much as we are doing to help mitigate the consequences of Brexit, the UK Government’s plans, in whatever form, will cost jobs, make people poorer and damage our society. The majority of people in Scotland don’t want it and it will do unimaginable damage to our economy and jobs market. 

The European single market is one of the great modern success stories. It allows independent nations, many much smaller than Scotland, to take advantage of a market of 500 million people. 

The seeming Holy Grail for the UK Government of leaving the EU appears to be ending free movement of people and curbing migration. Freedom of movement and immigration are vital for Scotland’s continued economic success. To leave this successful, developing market place makes no economic sense and it will damage the prospects of future generations. 

The Scottish Government remains committed to creating the right economic environment for jobs growth, but Brexit remains the biggest threat to Scotland’s economic success. 

We will continue to ensure that we move forward with our fair work agenda but also, that it remains ready to respond to all the circumstances we face going forward and of course, continue to advance the case for Scotland to be a modern, independent country as part of the European family of nations.

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