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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Young Persons Guarantee and National Training Transition Fund, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Long Covid


Contents


Young Persons Guarantee and National Training Transition Fund

I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a debate without motion on skills and opportunities to support recovery—young persons guarantee and national training transition fund, one year on. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak button now.

15:22  

On 8 October 2020, the Scottish Government launched the national transition training fund and, in the following month, we set out to Parliament the ambitions for the young persons guarantee. I reiterate my gratitude, and that of the Government, to Sandy Begbie for the work that he has done in developing and leading on that guarantee. His passion and enthusiasm have been evident throughout and I am delighted that he continues to advance the guarantee and that he has taken on the role of national chair of Developing the Young Workforce, which emphasises his commitment to young people.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to highlight how we are delivering on our ambitions and are doing so through our partnership work with local government, our agencies, the third sector, teachers, lecturers, trainers, key workers and employers.

On this one-year anniversary of the young persons guarantee, I will outline the collaborative next steps that we are taking to deliver the skills and training opportunities that support our Covid recovery and the Government’s wider efforts to bring about a fairer future.

Throughout the pandemic, we have sought to alleviate the harm that the virus has caused to our health, our economy and wider society. As we move forward with recovery, we must ensure that we build on the strong foundations that we have in our skills system and that we have the appropriate support to deliver training opportunities that will develop the skills that individuals and businesses need now and will need in future.

Last month, the Deputy First Minister launched the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy. It focused on the efforts that are needed to tackle inequality and disadvantage and the actions that are required to ensure the recovery that people, communities and our economy want and need. The strategy recognises that many critical sectors across the Scottish economy are reporting issues with the supply of labour as a result of our exit from the European Union.

From the food and drink sector to hospitality and from transport to social care, we are working with business organisations to help employers to fill vacancies. Our employability programmes, upskilling and retraining interventions and fair work tools provide a package of support for employers and for workers who are interested in moving into those jobs.

We are also developing our new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation, which will focus on the economic future that we want to see, with a greener, fairer and more inclusive wellbeing economy. That approach will help us to meet our 2030 climate targets, restore the natural environment, stimulate innovation, create jobs, improve wellbeing for all and further embed fair work standards across the economy.

The delivery of economic transformation requires that the people of Scotland have the opportunity to acquire the right skills. Throughout the pandemic, we have sought to recognise and understand the challenges that individuals and businesses face in order to develop the right interventions to meet their skills needs. The national transition training fund, which was introduced as a specific response to Covid-19’s effect on the labour market, is just one example of how we moved quickly to target our support to the individuals and sectors that were most in need.

The minister states that everyone should be given the opportunity. The national transition training fund creates opportunities for about 40,000 people, but 120,000 people are unemployed. Indeed, there were 80,000 people on furlough when that scheme finished. Does he believe that the response is sufficient, or will more places need to be created?

I say to Mr Johnson that the national transition training fund is only one element of the entirety of the system that we have. That is why I made the point at the outset that the fund and the young persons guarantee build on the strong foundations that we have. I recognise and understand the point that he makes, which is entirely valid, but my response is that we do not rely only on the national transition training fund. We also have the flexible workforce development fund, individual training accounts and our wider tertiary education offer. The fund has to be placed in that context. I made that point when I said that it is just one example of how we target our support to the individuals and sectors that are most in need.

Last year’s funding from the national transition training fund had a number of different strands, including individual support for those aged 25 and over who were made unemployed or whose jobs were under threat because of Covid-19. We know that the training has been well received. For example, the feedback from the participants in the tourism and hospitality talent development programme was overwhelmingly positive.

As well as supporting individuals, the national transition training fund has helped sectors to enhance the skills of their existing labour force. Our partners have delivered a range of interventions that have positively supported a myriad of Scotland’s most important and dynamic sectors from tourism and hospitality to green construction and from aerospace decommissioning to forestry.

Overall, in year 1, with some final figures still to be confirmed, up to 9,000 people have benefited from the training opportunities. A final year 1 report will be published early next year.

This year, we have given the national transition training fund a broader role in supporting Scotland’s economic recovery, addressing the impact of EU exit and responding to demand for future skills transitions, including in the transition to net zero. We have sought to apply the lessons learned from the first year of delivery to ensure that the funding responds to economic needs, and we have committed up to £20 million in funding to support individuals and sectors, across more than 30 projects. That funding will support up to 20,000 individuals and it will offer specific assistance to sectors that are in need of support, such as aviation, social care and digital skills.

Recently, I visited West Lothian College to hear from staff and students about the gateway to health and social care course, which is a skills boost course that is funded by the national transition training fund and was developed by the college in collaboration with the Scottish Ambulance Service. It has provided a skills intervention for a number of participants who moved from different sectors to support our mobile testing centres and who now want to stay in the health sector. It is a fantastic initiative and a great example of how our colleges work in partnership to create courses that respond to the needs of sectors and individuals.

As with the national transition training fund, partnership working is critical to the ambitions of our young persons guarantee. As a Government, we are delivering on our commitment to young people by providing up to £130 million for the young persons guarantee, which builds on our existing investment in education, skills and training. The funding will support 24,000 new and enhanced employment, training and education opportunities for young people, with a particular focus on supporting those who face additional challenges in participating in the labour market.

The young persons guarantee is youth focused and employer led. I am delighted to announce that more than 300 employers are now signed up to the guarantee, generating in excess of 6,000 additional opportunities. That movement of employers continues to grow, and I encourage all businesses and all sectors to get involved.

Employers are looking to their local communities as a source from which to recruit young workers and, alongside the Developing the Young Workforce network, are supporting the workforce of the future and our just transition towards our net zero targets.

Our national approach to the introduction of school co-ordinators for Developing the Young Workforce is creating increased work-based learning for pupils and is strengthening collaborative working with local employers. In recognition of the need for tailored support for some of our young people,?we are providing additional funding to Enable and to Intercultural Youth Scotland in order to support disabled young people and young people from minority ethnic communities in schools.

Meanwhile, our local employability partnerships are working across Scotland to change the lives of young people in their communities—from Dumfries and Galloway’s growing rural talent project to Orkney’s work with Who Cares? Scotland to improve the lives of care-experienced young people. Those partnerships are also supporting young people who face challenges in entering the labour market into fair and sustainable employment, through employer recruitment incentives that we have put in place, which are delivered through local employability partnerships.

As part of a number of events that are taking place to mark the first anniversary of the young persons guarantee, I was in Inverness yesterday, where I had the pleasure of meeting Capgemini, one of the first employers to sign up to the guarantee. In collaboration with the local college, the company is growing itself with local talent, recognising the pathway progression from foundation apprenticeships to its modern apprenticeship programme. A core part of its involvement centres not only on a desire to be a good actor in supporting young people in its area but on the opportunity to identify talent to fill vacancies in the organisation.

That is a message that I would like to reaffirm to employers. The young persons guarantee and, more generally, Developing the Young Workforce are certainly a way of giving back to young people, but they are also a massive recruitment opportunity. It is in employers’ own enlightened self-interest to get involved.

The minister might be aware that the first meeting took place last night of the Parliament’s cross-party group on maritime and shipbuilding. Of particular concern to the industry were the significant skills gaps in bringing people through. Will the minister commit to engaging with that sector and making sure that we can deal with that issue?

I readily concede that I was unaware of the meeting of the cross-party group, but I would be very happy to engage with that sector, as I would with any sector that is willing to give young people opportunities to get into the world of work.

As well as meeting employers, I look forward to meeting next Wednesday, as part of Scotland’s first careers week, a panel of young people at the employer conference for public sector and healthcare, and to discussing what the guarantee can do for them.

Strengthening careers advice and ensuring that every door remains open for every young person is an important part of the guarantee. The former general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and current board member of Skills Development Scotland Grahame Smith is leading a review of careers advice and information, as recommended by Sandy Begbie. Recommendations are due shortly.

As well as taking forward this range of actions, it is vital that we understand how the support that is delivered through the guarantee is achieving improved outcomes for young people. Our monitoring and evaluation framework, which is due for publication next month, will support our understanding of the impact of the guarantee across a range of economic, educational and equalities outcomes.

Albeit that they are only part of our efforts to support people to get the skills that they require in a changing economy and to respond to our societal need, the young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund sit alongside our wider tertiary education offer, individual training accounts and the flexible workforce development fund, as I mentioned a few moments ago to Daniel Johnson.

All too often, in the face of economic challenges, people have been left behind. Through our partnership working, I am determined not to have that happen, and that we work together to deliver a real and lasting impact.

14:34  

I welcome the opportunity to debate such an important matter, particularly as we begin our job-focused recovery from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

Too often, apprenticeships are seen as being second best to higher education. That is wrong. If anything, I am grateful for having bypassed the traditional learning pathway in my own career. I am a great advocate of different pathways into work, because no one route suits all—I think that all members will agree on that.

As Confucius once said:

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

That quote is very relevant to the issue for debate today. Training and apprenticeships are more important than ever. People must be able to learn and to apply what they learn in the world of work. A fall in the unemployment rate is encouraging, but we face challenging times ahead, especially as we navigate through the new developments in our job market that have emerged in response to the pandemic and with our commitments to a greener economy and future.

As we build back, I am delighted that the national transition training fund is dedicated to helping people to develop skills or to retrain in the face of Covid-19 and move into growth sectors. However, 13 per cent of respondents to the survey that was conducted did not secure a job after training. We cannot simply forget about that 13 per cent. Will the minister explain what is being done to foster a connection between individuals who have undergone training and businesses that are experiencing a skills shortage?

I commend the aims of the national transition training fund. In its immediate aftermath, it is possible that we will see an increase in new hires as numbers go back to pre-pandemic levels. However, without offering training that is based on demand from businesses, we risk having significant gaps and overlaps. More concerning than that, in May 2021, figures released by the Scottish Government put the number of individuals who were being supported by the scheme at around 3,000 rather than 6,000. The lack of consideration of what businesses need could also be responsible for the Scottish National Party’s broken promise to have 30,000 modern apprenticeships a year by 2020.

I hope that Pam Gosal recognises two things. First, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of apprenticeships in Scotland as opposed to what has been happening south of the border, where there has been a year-on-year decrease over the past few years. Secondly, I hope that she—being a fair-minded person—also recognises that the reason that that target was not achieved in the year that was set for it is that we were in the midst of a global pandemic and demand fell. It would otherwise have been achieved.

Every time that we come into this chamber, we look at the reason behind something, and the reason is always Covid. However, that fund was set up because we needed it during Covid, so it should have reached the targets that we had. The fact is that the Government had a target of reaching 6,000 individuals and it reached only 3,000. I see today that the Government has reached up to 7,500 individuals, but that still is not enough. There are 115,000 people facing long-term unemployment, and we need to do much more.

Will the member give way again?

I want to make some progress with my speech.

The minister excused the failure—this is quite relevant—under the cover of the coronavirus. The SNP Scottish Government seems to have been hiding behind the effects of the pandemic for a lot of its policy failures recently. Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on young people in employment. However, even before the pandemic, the number of employers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills shortages was increasing, and the number of young people starting a modern apprenticeship had fallen for five years in a row.

A demand-led approach to apprenticeships could have increased both the number of modern apprenticeships and the success rate of people finding a job on completion of their training. And that is not to mention the many graduates who have dedicated years to building up their skills to enter the workforce but who have faced difficulty in securing a graduate apprenticeship, paid or otherwise.

I understand that, in an uncertain market, taking on an apprentice is a commitment that some businesses are unable to make. However, the national transition training fund was created for that reason. It was and still is an important time to do everything that we can to advance people’s lives, businesses and the economy.

Will the member give way?

I will make progress.

Once again, it has fallen to the Opposition to do the numbers for the SNP. The First Minister announced a £15 million programme that would pay businesses £5,000 for each apprentice that they took on. However, if we divide that £15 million by £5,000, the numbers reveal that only 3,000 young people will be supported by the apprenticeship programme. That is less than 6 per cent of unemployed young people. Does the minister agree that his £15 million apprenticeship programme is inadequate to address the larger issue of unemployment?

Businesses and organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry recommend a demand-led approach to apprenticeships. I ask the minister to commit to such an approach.

I am genuinely perplexed as to what the member means when she asks us to change to a demand-led process for apprenticeships. We have a demand-led process. It seems inconsistent of her to ask for a demand-led system on the one hand while, on the other, dismissing the point that I made, which is that the very reason for our facing a challenge in reaching the 30,000 target was that the demand was not there. How can she square that circle?

If the minister is saying that the fund and its delivery are demand led, I can only say that he has a problem with marketing the fund and making businesses aware of it, because 13 per cent fell through the gap—and those are real people, not just statistics. There must be an issue with the marketing. The minister has to look at that.

Our world is changing. New skills are needed and businesses are looking to the future. Can the Scottish Government keep up?

I will finish by making three key points. First, the training that is offered through the national transition training fund is not enough to enable individuals to secure jobs. Far more must be done—and fast. Secondly, a demand-led approach must be taken if we are to make apprenticeships more attractive to employers, especially during these unprecedented times. Lastly, Scotland’s young people deserve every opportunity to prosper and thrive. They cannot become Covid’s lost generation.

15:42  

The pace of technological change is the fastest that it has ever been and the slowest that it will ever be. Economic change has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and climate change demands that, rather than search for the brake, we put our foot on the accelerator to effect further, deeper and more profound change.

The early days of this Government’s response do not bode well. The measures that the Government has taken have been inadequate at best. There is little surprise about that, given the 14-year track record of inadequate delivery.

It is difficult to find the right solution when the Government refuses to define the problem. There has been no robust analysis of the impact of young people’s experience of education on attainment and skills. That is the case in relation to schools, tertiary education and apprenticeships and other skills-based learning.

Labour has raised issues such as the scale of lost learning, receding literacy and communication skills among the youngest pupils and the number of disengaged teenagers, and we have asked for a state-of-the-nation analysis of the area time and again. The Government appears to have no appetite for that or for facing the reality that front-line workers deal with every day. We do not know the impact of lost learning on aspirations and the knock-on effect on skills gaps in the economy. We do not know the full extent of skills gaps regionally and across different industries, because there have been numerous incomplete skills audits, as Skills Development Scotland has admitted in the Parliament in recent weeks.

That means that we have an education recovery plan that amounts to little more than a cut-and-paste of existing policies. People on the front line have pilloried it as utterly inadequate and detached from reality.

All those issues have been raised with the ministerial team, and all have yet to see action.

The unemployment rate for young people peaked at 10.1 per cent this year—more than double the national rate. There is little or no plan of substance for getting those young people into employment and equipping them with the skills that are needed for the future. Daniel Johnson pointed out the inadequate scale of current interventions. The national transition training fund and the young person’s guarantee amount to 44,000 opportunities—about a third of the total that is required.

When we consider recovery and the realignment of the economy following Brexit and the pandemic, we need to acknowledge that our skills system was not functioning well before Brexit and the pandemic, so that we can design a system for the future. That system must be strategic in its purpose, it must consider the reality of how our economy is changing and where the opportunities will lie, and it must be centred on the individual. For the sake of those children, we cannot get bogged down in the constant grievances or constitutional bickering that we too often hear around the issue of skills shortages.

From the experience in my region, in the oil and gas industry, we know that the system often struggles to effectively upskill or reskill people into the industries where they are needed. Bridging the gap between the current North Sea industry and the next will require significant Government support at scale. However, technology transitions throughout history show that labour follows opportunity rather than forecasts. In essence, people will retrain only when the jobs are there, so a proactive industrial strategy is absolutely vital. We have seen the SNP Government miss its own targets by some considerable distance when it comes to the creation of green jobs and within its flagship employment service, Fair Start Scotland.

A key focus must be on ensuring that our skills system aligns with the long-term needs and interests of the economy and the people of our country. There can be nothing more important than digital skills, which will be pervasive in all parts of our economy in the future, and Scotland is woefully equipped to embrace the jobs and growth of that future. When I speak to businesses in my home city of Dundee, I hear that there is a desperate need for software engineers, coders, developers and information technology support but no considerable skills base from which that need can be met. Literally hundreds of people in the city are missing out on those opportunities because this Government is not equipping them with the necessary skills.

Whether a business is hiring graduates, filling technical posts or recruiting PhDs, far too often, young Scots are not available. Yes, that issue is sometimes complex. As the Logan review—commissioned by this Government but, sadly, not particularly well enacted—touched on, that requires careful planning and multi-agency co-ordination. Let us start by ensuring that there is a higher computing class running in every secondary school, with a qualified teacher to teach it. I would ask whether that is beyond the wit of this Government.

I believe that the private sector has the ideas and will to engage on these issues—it is, after all, those firms that require the skills that we are talking about—but that sector often feels that it is left to engage by itself, on a basis forged more by opportunity than a cohesive structure. A fundamental appraisal by the Government is urgently needed to get the structures right. Surely that must inform the thinking when we consider the funds and the guarantees that we are assessing today.

The member says that no support has been offered and that young people are doing this on their own. However, I have read that Dumfries and Galloway College, with support from the Scottish Government, is actively supporting young people to engage in digital courses. Is that not something that we should recognise?

Whether we are training people in artificial intelligence and machine learning or training people to the highest degrees and making sure that we have software engineers and people who can work in industry in the future, the scale of such interventions is completely inadequate in relation to what is required for the future of our economy. The Government is taking some limited interventions but, as its own publication, under the Logan review, recognised, they are entirely inadequate. Far more needs to be done. The private sector is ready to engage in this, but more needs to be done to engage it in talking about the skills gaps and what is required.

There are many options and routes to ensuring a better, more responsive and more strategic skills sector, and Labour members are ready to make that a reality. What will not get us there, though, is this Government burying its head in the sand over the significant challenges that we face. We cannot afford more dither and delay.

I am not trying to catch any particular person’s eye, but I remind all members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.

15:49  

Liberal Democrats have long argued that we need a massive investment in education, skills and retraining. The ability to retrain and learn new skills at every stage of life is more important than ever—it was more important than ever even before the pandemic hit. Businesses need the tools to thrive and everyone should have access to good work. Problems such as the climate emergency and the pandemic-related jobs crisis can often feel insurmountable, but a just transition to a net zero economy can and should create opportunities and jobs. With investment and innovation backed up by retraining and upskilling opportunities, there is hope.

We have the opportunity to rebuild our economy and repurpose it towards climate-friendly industry by pursuing and encouraging new green investments. If we get it right, Scotland could have the most highly skilled and adaptable workforce in Europe.

In the Scottish budget deal last year, we secured £50 million in a special allocation for the north-east to pay for skills, training, upskilling and business support in a region that is particularly under pressure, given its reliance on fossil fuels. That is how important we regard the agenda as being. It is why we made the case for a Government-backed graduate internship programme especially for small and medium-sized enterprises to get new talent into such businesses and to give that talent an important step on to the employment ladder. I am pleased that the Government is rolling that out. It is also why we welcome the young persons job guarantee. The scarring that we have seen in crises past must not be repeated this time. I, too, thank Sandy Begbie for his leadership.

It is also why we welcomed the national transition training fund, even though it had limited ambition. However, as is often the case with the Government, the rhetoric does not match the reality. The minister and I had a bit of an exchange earlier this year on the Government’s failure to deliver on its targets for that fund. The target was to train 6,000 people, but only 3,000 places were delivered by the end of March. The minister blamed the pandemic and the furlough scheme, but that excuse does not wash, because the target was set last October—right in the middle of the pandemic. Only half of an already cautious target was met for the period that began in October last year.

I do not know whether Willie Rennie was listening when I made my opening speech. We are still waiting for the final figures, but the indication is that there were actually 9,000 starts in the national transition training fund last year. I thought that that might be helpful.

What happened with the deadlines and targets for the national transition training fund is curious, because they miraculously moved from March to July. That is an additional four months in which the minister could try to get his numbers up to the target that he set. In a dangerous sleight of hand, he can suddenly profess to have met his target. We should view that report with great suspicion.

I do not know whether Mr Rennie is aware, but a lot of that training was delivered through our tertiary education system. As he is aware, that operates to an academic year rather than a financial year. That is why the figures are as they are.

The minister knew that last October. He is suddenly changing every setting, criterion, target and number to suit his argument. The truth is that he failed to meet the target by March. That was revealed in an answer to a written question at the time. It is clear that he failed and, rather than squirming away and trying to come up with various excuses as to why he has failed, he should just confess. [Interruption.] He is squirming—he is holding his hands out. If that is not squirming, I have never seen it.

Does Willie Rennie agree that quibbling about a thousand or two here or there is totally irrelevant compared with the more than 120,000 people who are currently unemployed or the 80,000 people who were on furlough when that scheme finished?

Daniel Johnson makes a good point. It is the point that I made about the limited ambition of the national transition training fund. Even with that limited ambition, the minister still failed to meet the target that he set only last October. They are his conditions, and he has failed to meet them.

It is important that the Government be honest. We have massive challenges in meeting the skills shortages across a load of sectors, from forestry to health and from early years education to logistics, but the minister is fiddling around with small numbers and making small changes. That is why we have ended up with the skills crisis that we have.

If the minister is going to fulfil the ambition that is required of the country—the ambition of young people and, in fact, of people of all ages—he will have to step up to the mark and start to deliver for a change.

15:54  

I am grateful to have the chance to reflect on the success of the young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund, one year after their inception. As we steadily and conscientiously navigate our route out to recovery, it is crucial to remember that the social, educational and economic scars of the pandemic have disproportionately affected the lives of our young people in Scotland.

Research funded by the Scottish Government and carried out by Young Scot, the Scottish Youth Parliament and YouthLink Scotland over the past year gave young people aged 11 to 25 the opportunity to share their views in an open survey on the impact of Covid-19. Thousands of responses to the survey show that it was largely girls and young women, young people aged over 18, young people with a disability or long-term illness and young carers who reported lower physical and mental wellbeing, lower satisfaction with educational arrangements and lower levels of optimism about current and future employment prospects.

In the same month that the Covid impact survey closed, the Scottish Government launched the young persons guarantee—a commitment that every 16 to 24-year-old in Scotland will be given the chance to work, start an apprenticeship, attend further or higher education or gain experience through specific training programmes or volunteering.

With fair work remaining a key tenet of the SNP’s economic plan, it is essential to create a labour market that values individual wellbeing and actively strives to remove the barriers that certain communities face to finding employment. Although more than 18,000 opportunities, including modern apprenticeships and graduate programmes, have been created through the young persons guarantee since 2020, I whole-heartedly welcome the additional £70 million that has been pledged by the Government, which will continue to support employers and providers to equip our young people with the skills that are needed for Scotland’s future.

In addition, as part of building an inclusive and environmentally focused economy, enhancing the national transition training fund by a further £125 million will allow us to work towards our net zero ambitions and support those aged 25 and over to retrain and develop the skills required to move into areas with the greatest potential for future growth and job opportunities.

Given the thousands of people in Glasgow marching for climate action, it is fantastic that those employment initiatives will be strongly linked to the climate emergency skills action plan and the green jobs workforce academy, including aircraft decommissioning training for workers in the aerospace sector and upskilling and reskilling individuals in the construction industry, with a focus on energy efficiency. I have seen that at first hand at the City of Glasgow College in Kelvin. [Interruption.] I am just about to finish.

After the success of its first year, which helped more than 6,000 people enrol in a variety of training programmes, the national transition training fund will continue for a second year, providing 20,000 training opportunities in sectors that have been impacted by Covid-19, climate commitments and an unwanted EU exit.

Although progress has undoubtedly been made, there is no room for complacency. I am proud that the Government continues to act with future generations in mind, and to quote my colleague Fiona Hyslop when she launched the young persons guarantee, I say to Scotland’s young people that I want you to know that we are marching with you and

“we want you to be successful and we will do everything we can to give you the opportunities you need.”

15:58  

The pandemic is one of the biggest challenges faced by young people across our United Kingdom. Young people have been detrimentally impacted as lockdowns and restrictions have affected their ability to work, study and plan for their futures. I understand the worry that the pandemic must have caused to many who have just left school and have no certainty about when life will return to normal.

As we continue to manoeuvre out of the pandemic, we must turn our attention to young people in Scotland. They are looking to us to ensure that we create jobs and provide opportunities to upskill. It is crucial that they have access to stable employment prospects once they have decided on their chosen career path.

Although the pandemic has added to the pressures on the job market, we know that the Scottish Government was under pressure to make improvements in looking at providing opportunities for our young people. From looking at the SNP Scottish Government’s record, we know that it has not done enough to provide our young people with the best opportunities once they leave school, higher education or further education. For example, prior to the pandemic, the SNP broke its promise to achieve 30,000 modern apprenticeships per year by 2019. It has missed its target on employability fund starts, and the numbers of young people starting a modern apprenticeship have fallen for five years in a row.

The SNP has admitted that the youth unemployment rate could rise to as high as 20 per cent. Its plan would help only 4 per cent of our young people. That proves that the SNP does not have a grip on supporting young people or the ideas to create more opportunities for them.

When we look at the roll-out of the SNP’s young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund, we see again that there is merit in the intention, as it aims to bring employers, partners and young people together, but the delivery has been poor. Although 4,000 people have had training funded through the national transition training fund, only 87 per cent of those who were surveyed after completing the programme had found a job. That is 13 per cent of those young people who will feel let down. Will the minister acknowledge in summing up that we need to do more to help that 13 per cent and ensure that that does not happen in future years as we continue with the programme?

I turn to the SNP’s apprenticeship policy, which was announced at its party conference last year. The First Minister promised a £15 million programme that would pay businesses £5,000 for each apprenticeship that they took on. In principle, that is a good idea, as it supports young people into employment as well as supporting businesses—it has been difficult for them, too. However, if we do the maths—as my colleague Pam Gosal did in her speech—we see that only 3,000 young people will be supported by that scheme.

The topic of this debate is skills and opportunities to support recovery. The Scottish Conservatives have the ambition to help and support young people. Some of our ideas, such as unlimited demand-led apprenticeships, were outlined in our party’s manifesto. We know that the pandemic and climate change have created demand in certain job sectors. We must take advantage of that by promoting those vacancies and helping young people to obtain work experience and jobs through apprenticeship programmes. It is simply not good enough to continue with the SNP’s targets-based approach, which ignores employers’ needs.

We would also look to support more women into apprenticeships. That area is often overlooked, but we know that there is a gender gap, particularly in STEM-related career paths. What could be better than to use the discussions that we have all had over the past week during the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—to bring more women into those sectors through apprenticeships and upskilling?

To conclude, the SNP needs to get a grip on those issues to ensure that our young people are provided with opportunities. If it does not act now to deal with the real issues that our job sector faces, many young people will, sadly, miss out on life-changing opportunities that could have been offered by the Scottish Government.

16:03  

The global Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact, the full scale of which has still to emerge. In 2020, we saw the largest disruption to education and employment in recent history. School closures and more general disruption to learning have impacted greatly on education and the development and wellbeing of children and young people—in particular, those who are vulnerable and marginalised.

That said, I have been privileged to witness some truly astounding displays of resilience, determination and flexibility from young people in my constituency in the past 18 months. I am sure that colleagues have also seen such examples in their constituencies the length and breadth of this country.

The introduction of the national transition training fund, along with the young persons guarantee, by the Scottish Government in 2020 in response to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, was an important commitment to the future of employer-workforce development and to those who most need our support. By bringing together employers, partners and young people, the aim of the young persons guarantee is to connect 16 to 24-year-olds in Scotland to an opportunity, whether that be a job, an apprenticeship, further or higher education, a training programme or volunteering. That was ambitious, progressive and forward looking, so I am delighted that successful progression of that multifaceted programme has already created in excess of 18,000 opportunities for young people.

Alongside that, the national transition training fund seeks to tackle the rise in unemployment in adults aged 25-plus by offering short, sharp training opportunities for people to learn in-demand skills, and by providing adults with tailored support to identify relevant training and employment opportunities, followed by funded training to match their individual needs.

In Fife, I was pleased to see an initiative by Fife College in partnership with the Energy Skills Partnership being warmly received. The initiative is at the heart of delivering invaluable support. A series of fully funded training courses have been made available to individuals aged over 25 who have either faced redundancy or have been made redundant since last March, when the pandemic began.

Fifers who have been adversely affected by the pandemic can access a wide range of courses, including one on the most recent wiring regulation update, an upskilling qualification in electric vehicle charging that is aimed at qualified electricians, and training for tradespeople in the energy, engineering and construction sectors. Health and safety qualifications on offer include the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health’s general certificate, and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s managing safely course.

The purpose and design of the courses are to allow tradespeople to upskill and move into roles in sectors with better potential for future growth and job retention. The renewables industry in Scotland is growing and offers great employment prospects for those who have the required skills and knowledge.

As we promote and explore the potential of Scotland’s renewable energy sources, and renewable energy’s ability to meet our local and national heat, transport and electricity needs, it is clear that a highly skilled workforce will be fundamental to the success of our renewables industry.

Given that his party has been in government for more than 14 years, does the member not feel that we have missed the boat when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities that the renewables sector offers?

I am slightly disappointed that renewables sector manufacturing jobs did not come to us. That is especially true for me because Burntisland Fabrications was in my constituency. The UK Government had a part to play in that.

The measures are also about training people for jobs around the globe. Several of my constituents work in maintenance in the renewables sector. They work in the international market, in places such as Turkey and Italy, and they bring back their income to spend in the local economy.

Opportunities such as those that are being delivered by Fife College, through the national transition training fund, are allowing tradesmen and tradeswomen to retrain in renewables technology installation and maintenance, and to develop the required skills for the transition into green jobs and a new future.

Although it is, of course, important to recognise that although progress has been made, work remains to be done. Efforts must, and will, continue to ensure that the ambition and early success of those programmes are improved on, with the addition of new and exciting opportunities.

The increased investment of £70 million will support local partnerships to provide training and employer recruitment incentives; colleges to deliver around 5,000 more short industry-focussed courses; the continued roll-out of new school co-ordinators through the developing the young workforce programme; a new graduate internship scheme; and increased volunteering capacity and third sector programmes. All those are extremely welcome. Also welcome is the £20 million that is being made available through the second phase of the national transition training fund in 2021-22.

We all know that our young people will have a key role to play as we deliver a better and fairer country and build on our ambition for Scotland. We must learn from what we have done so far and we must continue to work collaboratively to ensure that all young people can realise their full potential.

16:08  

The pandemic has caused a shock to the ambitions of young people—a shock that we must urgently mitigate if we do not want to leave behind an entire generation.

The unemployment rate for young people is one in 10, which is more than double the rate for the rest the population. Almost two thirds of people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic were under 25. Young people have shouldered the burden of the pandemic disproportionately, when it comes to employment.

As I have mentioned previously, tens of thousands of young people shielded. They gave up opportunities in order to protect themselves and the rest of the country, but they were not singled out for any attention. That still disappoints me deeply.

As the Scottish Government’s former adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, pointed out a few years ago in her review “The life chances of young people in Scotland: report to the First Minister” on the life chances of young people aged 16 to 24,

“choices of career, further training, employment, and housing can be particularly problematic for young adults. Decisions at this stage can set the course for adulthood.”

I have always believed that to be right.

The member is quite right to express her concerns, which I share, about the rate of youth unemployment. She said that there has been no response to that. Does she not recognise that the young persons guarantee might be felt to be a response to that reality?

That is what I will go on to talk about. In principle, the young persons guarantee is the right response. However, as Michael Marra—I think—pointed out earlier, the issue is the approach that we take and its scale. I will address that in some detail, because I am trying to be constructive. I went through the website in some detail, as if I was a young person looking at it and I found it to be a very clunky website. I hope that, since the minister asked the question, he will take on board some of my points about it.

I want to acknowledge the work of Sandy Begbie and Grahame Smith. If I was in the minister’s shoes, I would, given that we agree on the background to it, give those people leadership of the scheme because we do not have a lot of time to get it back on track. There are about 600,000 young adults in Scotland, which is a significant section of the working population. I welcome the principle of the scheme, but it lacks any serious attempt to directly engage with young people, as my example showed.

At the time when young people were shielding, I specifically called on the minister—the current minister—to directly engage with them, because they were struggling to use the website, as many of them still are. It is not good enough. When we click on “search for a job”, we are presented with a keyword search that puts in some keywords, but it should suggest areas of employment. The way it works relies on the young person getting knowledge from somewhere else. It should flag up the sectors where there is growth. Where are those jobs and where should young people be looking? They do not know; they are 16, 17 and 18 years old.

The website also includes volunteering roles. Although I accept that volunteering is beneficial for young people, it is not a paid career and it is not necessarily a start on the career ladder. In addition, the vast majority of young people cannot afford to volunteer, so I find volunteering’s inclusion strange, in the scheme of things.

I would also like to hear the minister guarantee that the young persons guarantee scheme will not deliver zero-hours contract positions and that there is an expectation that we will raise young people’s living standards when they apply for jobs.

Last year, the report of the advisory group on economic recovery stated:

“The scheme should offer secure employment, for a period of at least two years, to 16-25 year olds, paid at the Living Wage, with access to training, apprenticeships and the possibility of progression.”

However, despite the scheme’s having been launched in November 2020, the Scottish Government has confirmed that it has still not set targets or key performance indicators, which means that there is no way to measure the success or impact of the scheme. It promised 130,000 green jobs by 2020, but we are significantly behind that number, with only 21,000 jobs having been confirmed.

The green jobs workforce academy was announced in August, but it is not clear how many jobs will be offered under that scheme. The link that is provided on the academy’s web pages comes up with around 900 jobs, as I saw for myself this afternoon. It is about the scale of the response. I pretended to be a young person in Glasgow and only about 500 jobs were thrown up by the scheme, which is significantly below where we need it to be. I hope that we can make significant improvements to the scheme and that the minister has listened to what I have said.

16:13  

I am enjoying the debate and have changed what I was originally going to talk about. Instead, I call on my experience as an information technology professional to follow up on what my colleague Emma Harper said. Lots of really good work is going on in the IT sector, but we are in danger of forgetting that and not seeing how innovative Scotland is in responding to things such as the IT skills gap. We talk down the industry, which might be putting people off.

Does the member accept that the Logan review, which was commissioned by the Government, recognised the huge skills gaps in the industry and the potential—indeed, the necessity—for growth? I speak to employers in my constituency who tell me that software engineers are like hen’s teeth.

Absolutely. I declare an interest as I am still a member of the British Computer Society. However, it is not just Scotland: everywhere there are shortages in IT. That is why we should be encouraging initiatives such as dressCode, which is a not-for-profit charity that was started by a computing teacher in Scotland and which encourages young women to take up computing in school. It promotes coding and all sorts of other areas, including games design and cybersecurity. I believe that it is running a competition for a poster that will encourage more women to take part in computing. [Interruption.] No—I have taken one intervention already.

Such initiatives are making a difference by encouraging people to come forward. If I get back to the speech that I had planned to give, I will talk about how our education establishments work with our communities and in partnership with people across Scotland to encourage people to take part in education.

The Open University’s CodingSkills+ programme was a response to the Covid pandemic. Through the £1 million digital start fund, which Skills Development Scotland managed, the programme made 100 opportunities available. It took on people who had been furloughed or made redundant as a result of Covid and gave them 13 weeks of intense IT training so that they had the skills that they needed to take up productive and highly paid jobs of the kind that we want in Scotland. We must do such things.

ScotlandIS is doing an incredible amount of work to encourage people into IT. We have so much to be thankful for, such as the success of our games industry and of Abertay University and other universities that have taken up training for that industry and are teaching people to code. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I will not take another intervention.

I wanted to be here today because I want to talk about the great work that is being done in my constituency with foundation apprenticeships. A few years ago, I had the joy of visiting, with the Deputy First Minister, Braidhurst high school, which has embedded a partnership with New College Lanarkshire. That is an incredible college, and its success in WorldSkills competitions exemplifies that. Every year, the college has taken young people to competitions in Britain and the wider world in order to show all the training that it is doing to give young people skills. The college is an exemplar of how to encourage young people to take up apprenticeships, which are so important.

The young persons guarantee is such a great development. We cannot forget how important initiatives have been in encouraging young people and giving them confidence to see that they do not need to go to college or university—although that is a brilliant way for them to go forward—and that there are opportunities through foundation apprenticeships and through gaining skills while working.

However, please can we have fair work? Please can we have no more age discrimination whereby young people are paid a lower minimum wage? Please can we also end unfair unpaid work trials for young people?

16:17  

The challenges that our young people face as a result of the current public health crisis cannot be overstated and have implications for social, economic and health-related outcomes. Against that background, the ambition for the young persons guarantee was bold, and I, too, thank Sandy Begbie. The aim is that, within two years of its introduction, every 16 to 24-year-old will be in paid employment, on an apprenticeship or training programme, enrolled in education or engaged in formal volunteering.

Key to the guarantee’s success is its design and the pace of implementation, but the think tank Our Scottish Future argues that job creation through the scheme is taking second place to several rounds of consultation and governance design. Overall, it identifies

“a disconnect between ambition, incentivisation and opportunity creation”.

We know that time is of the essence. Figures that were published in September show that there are about 8,300 more unemployed young people than there were pre-pandemic, which is a rise of 2.7 per cent. However, the minister confirmed earlier this year that the Scottish Government has not set targets—[Interruption.] The Government might come up with a figure of about 9,000, but it has not set targets for the guarantee. Meanwhile, the overarching key performance indicator is a return to pre-pandemic levels of unemployment by the end of this parliamentary session, which is five years from now. [Interruption.] I might take an intervention when the clunky website has been sorted out and something that is easier to navigate has been produced, but not now.

It is, of course, critically important that we assess the impact of Covid-19 on the opportunities that are available to young people. However, the absence of opportunities cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone. [Interruption.] No, I want to make progress.

Labour market statistics for Scotland show that the employment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds has been decreasing since July 2018, which suggests that at least some of the underlying drivers are systemic.

Ensuring that Scotland’s young people have the right training and skills is key to long-term attachment to the labour market. Apprenticeships, in particular, can help to provide the next generation of workers with the skills that our economy needs, yet modern apprenticeship starts for 16 to 19-year-olds have fallen every year since 2014. We know from the most recent Scottish employer skills survey that more than one fifth of all vacancies were skill-shortage vacancies. Employers could not fill them, because applicants simply did not have the skill set, knowledge or experience to do the role. That is the case not only with software engineers. Further, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2020 report on skills in Scotland emphasised that improvements could be made to increase the “responsiveness, quality and flexibility” of the apprenticeship system.

It is good to hear the minister say that he is heeding the calls from organisations such as Confederation of British Industry Scotland and the Scottish Conservatives, who have always advocated strongly for a demand-led approach that would enable businesses to create apprentice places based on their specific needs. That is the skills revolution that Scotland needs.

It is undoubtedly true that the past 18 months have been incredibly challenging, but there is scope to create a skilled workforce of young people that can meet the emerging needs of the economy as it recovers.

16:21  

Only last week, I arranged a meeting with Skills Development Scotland, the Department for Work and Pensions and East Lothian works to consider our skills and employability strategy. At that meeting, we discussed the situation in East Lothian and the sectors that have been impacted by Brexit. In hospitality, many businesses are not working at full capacity; in farming, many fruit farmers are telling me that they will not be planting fruit next year as they have no one to pick the fruit; and in care, all our providers are struggling to recruit.

At that meeting, we heard that our area’s unemployment rate is 5.8 per cent, which is higher than the national rate of 4.8 per cent, and that the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is also higher than the national rate of 12.4 per cent. However, for context—I hope that our Tory colleagues are listening to this—the UK unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is 17 per cent, so I will not take any lessons from Tories on the phenomenon.

Will the member take an intervention?

No, I am sorry.

The claimant count in East Lothian in September was 2,435, which is 38 per cent higher than the pre-pandemic level in February 2021. Between 1 July and 26 October 2021, there were 2,421 job postings advertised across East Lothian. That means that there are high claimant counts and high job postings. The challenge is to marry those two statistics.

I want to focus on the young persons guarantee. We want to make it as easy as possible for young people to understand their learning and career choices at the earliest age, and providing long-term person-centred support for the young people who need that most is key.

I know that Skills Development Scotland is leading on a collaborative, system-wide review of careers information, advice and guidance—I note that careers week takes place next week—to bring together the views and experiences of young people, parents, employers, teachers and experts.

In addition, SDS has developed a series of mapping workshops with the DWP, local authorities and the third sector on behalf of the Scottish Government, looking at interaction points and handovers between the SDS, the DWP and local authorities, as well as, importantly, third sector employability provision for young people.

The review of the senior phase will help us better align education provision at all levels with the future economic strategy for Scotland and the needs of employers.

The implementation of the policy of having Developing the Young Workforce school co-ordinators in every secondary school in Scotland is key in relation to engagement with partners and will increase opportunities for work-based learning for pupils and support their access to education, work and training. Apprenticeships will play a crucial role in that, with pathway apprenticeships and, as the minister mentioned, confirmed funding for foundation and graduate apprenticeships. The Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board is important to that work, as are the Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland and enterprise agencies.

The Scottish Government, UK Government and local authorities all work together—which I have seen happen in East Lothian—to ensure alignment between the kickstart programme and the young persons guarantee. I am having quarterly meetings in East Lothian to ensure that we all work closer together. Local, tailored approaches are key as we tackle the issue.

In supporting those who need it most, we need to gain a better understanding of the sectors that support groups of young people who can face barriers due to inequality, which we know has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Local partnerships, with additional funding for recruitment incentives to support young people into jobs and apprenticeships, are key.

Some of the hardest hit sectors are leisure, tourism, hospitality and care. Traditionally, it is in those sectors that young people, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and women have secured jobs. Opportunities and roles in the health and social care sector could be used to support young people into employment.

There are opportunities to develop local and sector-based initiatives, such as hospitality academies. In rural economies, the growing rural talent programme provides opportunities for young people, while still at school, to develop relevant skills and knowledge of the forestry and agriculture sectors as the start of a pathway to a range of opportunities post school.

A highly skilled, motivated young workforce is key to meeting the challenges of Brexit and Covid recovery. Let us all play our part in supporting that agenda, and develop our young people as best we can.

16:26  

In the short time that I have, I will concentrate on the young persons guarantee.

The young persons guarantee

“is a commitment to bring together employers, partners and young people. It aims to connect every 16 to 24 year old in Scotland to an opportunity.”

What is that opportunity? It could be a job, apprenticeship, further or higher education, training programme, or, from the scant evidence available, more likely a volunteering opportunity.

As we emerge from the pandemic, there is a real and present danger that the Covid generation of 18 to 25-year-olds who are coming through the crisis are set at a permanent disadvantage compared with their elder peers. We have a group of young people with a lost 18 months—a lost 18 months of developing with experiences, extending the friendship circles that are so important going forward and growing up with the support that existed for those who went before. They are our Covid generation—a generation that was promised that it would have an opportunity.

Despite the scheme being launched in November 2020, the Scottish Government has confirmed that it has still set no targets or key performance indicators for its young persons guarantee, meaning that there is no way to measure the success or impact of the scheme.

In June this year, responding to a written question—

I am sure that the member would not want to mislead Parliament. KPIs have been published, and I am happy to send them to him.

I am grateful for the minister’s intervention, because in June this year, in a written response, the minister said:

“we have not set targets for the Guarantee.”—[Written Answers, 11 June 2021; S6W-00331.]

In July 2021, the Government published an implementation progress report, which states:

“Work continues to develop the Measurement and Evaluation Framework, which will underpin our understanding of how the Young Person's Guarantee is working for young people.”

The same report highlights the key risks and mitigations. I will give one example. A potential risk is that

“Colleges and universities may be unable to deliver additional training and opportunities due to possible lack of resource.”

The mitigation is stated as

“1) Regular engagement with further and higher education partners”

and

“2) Regular engagement with students and their representative organisations.”

I humbly suggest that if additional training and opportunities are undeliverable due to resources, the answer is probably not engagement, but better resources.

The minister’s written answer went on to say:

“As part of this process we are developing a set of Key Performance Indicators that will help us understand the cumulative impact of the Guarantee. These are due to be finalised in Summer 2021.”—[Written Answers, 11 June 2021; S6W-00331.]

It is a scheme that shows more hope than delivery. The report provides updates on progress made against the initial recommendations for the guarantee. Out of the 28 initial recommendations, a third are tracked as

“work commenced with further development required”.

With so many young people unemployed, and the scheme having been in place for more than a year, I note that we can and should do more. The unemployment figures from June to August 2021 show that the unemployment rate for young people was as high as 10.1 per cent, which is more than double the national rate of 4.4 per cent. Again, we can and should do more.

Is there an assurance that zero-hour contracts will not be the “opportunity” in the young persons guarantee, and that fair work will lie at the heart of the opportunity? I am quite happy to give my final 10 seconds to the minister if he would like to respond to that.

Martin Whitfield will know that we have high aspirations for fair work. We will always seek to advance fair work. If we had powers on employment law, we could do more.

High aspirations can be measured only if we know what we will measure them against.

16:30  

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I welcome the speeches that we have heard so far, and I thank Michael Marra for taking my intervention, which I forgot to say at the time.

The financial, social, physical and mental health challenges that people across Scotland have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic have been extremely difficult. Scotland’s young people have felt the effects of the pandemic particularly hard. The pandemic has had a negative impact on people in sectors such as hospitality and tourism, which are hugely important in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

To alleviate the pandemic’s impact, the Scottish Government has benefited young people looking to enter the workforce across Scotland through its investment of £70 million in the young persons guarantee, which offers every 16 to 24-year-old in Scotland the opportunity of a job or apprenticeship, further or higher education, or a training programme or volunteering opportunity. Since it was officially launched in November 2020, funding has been committed to create up to 18,000 training, job and apprenticeship opportunities for young people.

The funding includes £45 million for local partnerships to provide training and employer recruitment incentives, and £13.5 million for colleges, universities and the Scottish Funding Council to provide industry-focused courses, supporting up to 5,000 young people and providing employment support for 500 recent graduates.

The funding has allowed employers in Dumfries and Galloway such as Jas P Wilson, BSW Timber, Alpha Solway and DuPont Teijin Films to increase their numbers of modern apprenticeship places. I have visited all those employers, and I thank them for all the work that they do and for supporting our next generation workforce.

However, I have been contacted by local manufacturers, including Alpha Solway, which I visited two weeks ago, who feel that more work could be carried out to promote manufacturing as a positive career destination. Therefore, I ask the minister to ensure that Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Government officials work with manufacturing firms to ensure that young people are aware of the benefits of a career in Scottish manufacturing. That would also help to improve the resilience of our local manufacturing supply chains.

I welcome the £25 million national transition training fund, which has already helped 10,000 people, including 312 young folks across Dumfries and Galloway, to develop the skills that are required to move into sectors with the greatest potential for future growth.

I have recently been contacted by NFU Scotland, which has highlighted the need for rural skills to be a focus of the fund, as well as for agriculture and rural skills to be highlighted as positive destinations for people of all ages and, in particular, our young people. NFU Scotland believes that schools and career advisers do not promote the farming and food production sectors, which are often perceived as a last resort for less able or academic young people.

The farming sector requires an efficient, effective and user-friendly education and skills system that is responsive to the sector’s current and future needs. That is particularly important because agriculture will play a huge part in tackling the climate emergency. I therefore support all initiatives to ensure that we have a professional rural workforce that is equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge.

Previously, I met George Jamieson, who is a policy manager for NFU Scotland, to talk about NFUS’s report and its recommendations on how to improve the rural workforce, which, increasingly, is an ageing workforce. I have written to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands about how those recommendations could be taken forward, but I would be grateful if the minister would agree to meet George Jamieson and me to discuss the matter further.

Again, I welcome the debate and the steps that the Scottish Government has taken to support those who have suffered most during the pandemic. I highlight my asks for manufacturing and rural skills.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I mentioned a meeting that I had with the DWP and East Lothian works. Although I met them in my capacity as an MSP, I am a serving councillor in East Lothian, which is recorded in my entry in the register of members’ interests. I mention that for clarity.

That will be on the record, Mr McLennan.

We move to the closing speeches in the debate.

16:35  

This afternoon, we have been trying to address two fundamental issues. That is quite complicated to do, especially in only 90 minutes.

The first issue is whether our skills and apprenticeships system is up to the job of addressing the problems that have been thrown up by Covid. The second is whether the system adequately meets the needs of Scotland’s future. Addressing those issues is complicated and we do not have the luxury of picking them off one by one.

I have been frustrated by what I have heard from both the Government and from SNP back benchers. They have argued that because we have the young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund, no further questions should be asked. However, it is relevant and important to question whether those schemes are up to the job because of the urgency of the task at hand and the scale of the problem. That is the argument that my colleague Pauline McNeill set out. We are not saying that those schemes do not work; we are asking whether they do enough work.

The second issue, which was outlined well by my colleague Michael Marra, is the question whether the skills system is delivering fundamental skills, such as the digital and zero-carbon skills that our economy will not only need, but rely on in future. My frustration can be summed up by the exchange between Michael Marra and Clare Adamson. There are of course some great things going on to help young people get into coding, but the fundamental point is that, since 2008, the number of computing science teachers in our schools has dropped by a quarter. We cannot deliver the digital skills that we need if we cannot guarantee what Michael Marra called for, which is a higher computing science class in every secondary school. Young people cannot get the skills that they need if those subjects are not being delivered in schools.

Mr Johnson and I were colleagues on the previous session’s Education and Skills Committee when we carried out our STEM inquiry. He will understand that many people who are trained to teach computing science go on to take up jobs in that sector. That is one reason why it is difficult to recruit computing teachers.

Does Mr Johnson also recognise that partnerships with colleges provide an opportunity for that element of the curriculum to be delivered in colleges or through foundation apprenticeships? That is what the Developing the Young Workforce programme is about.

Acknowledging the problem will not make it go away and it has taken until this point in the debate to hear an SNP member acknowledge that fundamental problem. I am not saying that people are not finding jobs in that area, or that there are not good schemes, but the Government is putting its head in the sand about the lack of teachers.

If we look at the urgent and pressing problems caused by Covid, we find ourselves in a different situation to the one that we expected. Many of us thought that we would be facing an unemployment crisis. That has not occurred, but there are labour shortages. There were 80,000 people on furlough when that scheme ended. Are the responses to Covid up to the job of reskilling those who need that? It is possible to have both labour shortages and people who are unable to go into those jobs because they cannot reskill.

The simple maths is that, between the young persons guarantee and the national training transition fund, only 44,000 opportunities will even be aimed at, let alone achieved. There was a rather odd quibble between Willie Rennie and the minister as to whether the national transition training fund number is 3,000, 7,000 or 9,000. That is irrelevant. The relevant point is whether the response is up to the scale of the challenge, which is measured not in thousands of opportunities or places, but in the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently unemployed. We need to tackle that.

Of course the member is right. The scale of the challenge needs to be met, but surely we have to measure the Government’s performance against the targets that it has set if we are going to trust its overall strategy and objectives.

Perhaps I should have been clearer. I was not questioning what was said by my colleague who sits behind me; I was questioning the quibbling that came from the Government benches. Willie Rennie is absolutely right. The precise number is irrelevant, but we need to ask whether the strategic targets are right and whether the scale of the intervention is appropriate given the scale of the challenge. In that regard, the numbers give us a much gloomier picture than the minister, perhaps, wanted to paint.

Ultimately, we need urgency and flexibility. We must not have long-drawn-out engagement processes and be met with a lack of resource to deliver, as my colleague Martin Whitfield said. To put it simply, the Government’s approach has been found wanting.

By the same token, however, there were some fair challenges from the SNP benches. We cannot simply paint a picture of doom and gloom, as there are real strengths in the apprenticeship system. We have seen a system developed that has the confidence of much of industry. In contrast with other parts of the United Kingdom, we have a system that is grounded in work and jobs, and to that extent I share the questions about what the Conservatives mean by a demand-led system. Fundamentally, we have a system that is driven by work.

Where there is criticism to be made, and where we should focus our critique, is on the flexibility of that system. Too many employers talk to me about the fact that they have to take the modern apprenticeship frameworks as they stand. People cannot take a more piecemeal approach, and the system is inflexible in relation to short-term needs. Likewise, many employers, including most notably employers in the retail industry, point out to me that the level of benefit that they get simply does not match what they are charged through the apprenticeship levy. Only 2 per cent of modern apprenticeships are retail and we have seen a 44 per cent reduction in retail apprenticeships.

The Government must address those issues. That is not to say that the system is completely flawed, but if we are going to improve the system, we have to recognise the flaws.

Mr Johnson, I have been generous.

I will close, Presiding Officer. We need flexibility and urgency and a response that matches the scale of the issue.

16:42  

This has been a wide-ranging and important debate, but I cannot help but feel that this is a topic in relation to which we are good at talking, but not doing. My colleague Pam Gosal quoted Confucius at the start of the debate, and although I am not normally into deep words of wisdom, I think that he is right: it is almost always what we do that matters.

After 14 years under SNP rule, it is not entirely clear what progress has been made. I cannot see any evidence of the parity of esteem for skills-based education that is so often mentioned. In an SNP Scotland, school and university-based education is the automatic default for many. In direct contrast, we now find that, in an SNP Scotland, it is a struggle for people to access training for real jobs and opportunities where identified shortages exist. That is not an accident; it has come about as a direct result of choices taken in ministerial corridors.

We do not have a well-balanced system, nor one that is working well. Behind that inconvenient truth, as we heard time and time again in our debate today, we find a lack of ambition. To be fair, many nice-sounding initiatives have been announced, but it is not entirely clear that they will meet the scale of the challenge that we face. Many members covered why some of the schemes are not delivering what was promised and why they are not as good in reality as they sounded when they were announced in the chamber. I do not wish to go back over those points, but they serve to reinforce my view that the Government is falling short.

The pandemic and the shocks that it has sent through our society and economy should be the wake-up call that we need to change our approach to skills and training. Of course, our task in building back better would have been easier if we were in a better position before the pandemic. However, there has been no real drive or sense of purpose in this area for more than a decade.

To understand how little priority has been given to skills and training, we have only to look at how our college sector has been funded and supported. In a country that was serious about vocational education, ministers would look to expand access to college places, to turbocharge the whole sector financially and to enable colleges to provide many more modular courses. Instead, colleges continue to be the poor relation—undervalued and underutilised.

We need to create a system that is dynamic and nimble and adapts to the changing needs of our economy. What is most important is that we need skills training and apprenticeship opportunities that work for people and are available when they need them. That is why Conservative members support a demand-led approach to apprenticeships. We believe that that will make them more attractive to employers and will therefore create more opportunities for employees. That is not about setting arbitrary targets; it is about reaching out to businesses, business groups and business representatives and opening up the opportunity to create as many new apprenticeships as possible. A number of my colleagues touched on that idea; I, too, would be keen to hear the minister’s view on it.

The fact that the SNP is missing its own targets does not mean that there is no capacity to create more apprenticeships, nor that employers are not willing to do more. Daniel Johnson was right to look at some of the processes for taking on and training apprentices, because they are often too complicated, particularly for smaller businesses. Emma Harper mentioned the farming sector. I, too, met George Jamieson recently. There is concern in the rural sectors, which are often under a lot of pressure, that people do not have the time and resource to support apprenticeships, even though they would like to do so. It is worth looking at what we do about that.

As I said, we need a change in approach. However, all that we have in the face of the urgent challenge that lies before us is an SNP Government that talks big on skills but delivers little; that believes that making announcements is the same thing as delivering change; that is out of big ideas and focuses instead on lots of small schemes and small pots of money; and that hopes that no one will notice that there is no real strategy underpinning its direction.

Rather than patting themselves on the back, ministers urgently need to wake up to the scale of the challenge that is faced by our economy, our society and individuals across Scotland. The harsh reality is that many of the stubborn skills shortages that have been highlighted today have been created here in Scotland by action, or lack of action, in the Parliament and at the heart of the Scottish Government. Although the pandemic has exposed many weaknesses and has increased the scale of the challenge, we cannot and should not accept that those things were not a problem before Covid-19.

However, all is not lost. We have everything that we need in order to succeed. Our education sector, workforce and employers are all ready to go. The only question is whether the Government is ready to move from words to action and to recognise, for the first time, the scale of the challenge that the people of Scotland face.

I call Jamie Hepburn to wind up. Minister, you have until 5 pm.

16:48  

I begin by thanking those who have contributed to the debate. What we have heard today—albeit that it may not always have been apparent in some of the rhetoric that has been deployed—is a great degree of agreement about the approach that we need to take in gearing our skills system towards better supporting people towards the opportunities as they lie. The young persons guarantee and national transition training fund—

Will the minister take an intervention?

I have been speaking for less than a minute, but why not?

The minister has said that there is a wide degree of consensus. Did he hear the consensus across the chamber that none of the actions that the Scottish Government is taking goes far enough or fast enough to meet the challenge?

Well, I certainly heard Oliver Mundell say that, but whether that represents consensus is another matter.

I will develop the point that I was going on to make. I recognise of course that there is not complete agreement when it comes to the approach that has been taken. However, although Daniel Johnson seemed to suggest that there is no recognition that more has to be done or that different things need to be deployed, I recognise that that has to be the case. Although I am perhaps paraphrasing it, the fundamental question that he posed is whether our skills system is up to the challenge that I just posed.

The first thing that I will reflect on—again, here is some consensus for Mr Mundell—is that I very much agree with his point about the strong foundations of our education system. I also agree with Mr Johnson about the strengths of our modern apprenticeship system. However, we must of course be ever more responsive to the challenges that we face. We must ensure that our skills system is ever better geared towards the ends that we need to see and that it supports people to where the opportunities lie. That is the direction that I want our skills system to move in, which is laid out in our future skills action plan. There is probably more agreement in what we have discussed today than might have been felt to be the case.

I was in fact questioning the skills system a little less fundamentally than that. I was saying that there has been a lack of analysis from the Government of what in the response, the national transition training fund and the jobs guarantee has worked and, critically, what has not worked. What does the minister think has worked and, critically, what does he think has not worked and should be improved on?

I agree with Mr Johnson that we must always be willing to prosecute the schemes that we put in place to see what worked. We are committed to doing that, so there will be an assessment of the young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund, which will be available for Parliament to assess.

I will turn to some of the points that were made during the debate. I will start with Mr Rennie’s contribution. He thought that I was squirming—to put that in its full context, I say that he rather overestimates the impact that his words and rhetoric have on me. I agreed—again, here is some more agreement—with the point that he made about the need to focus on sectors where we have skills needs through the national transition training fund. I would argue that that is very much what we are geared towards across the range of the more than 30 programmes that we have this year.

Michael Marra mentioned the requirement to have a concerted focus on the digital. This year—year 2 of the national transition training fund—we have our digital start fund, which will support those who are unemployed or on low incomes to gain advanced digital skills. There is also our digital reskilling pipeline and our digital skills catalyst fund, code your future. Looking at other sectors, we see that there is a taster programme in early learning and childcare, the tourism and hospitality talent development programme, an introduction to adult social care and the Open University adult social care skills boost. In aerospace, there is support for diversification, aircraft decommissioning and aviation work, and there is support for the construction, forestry and screen sectors, among others. I hope that that is an indication that we have a programme that is geared towards the very end that Mr Rennie talked about.

On the need to enhance digital skills, does the minister believe that higher computing should be available and taught by a qualified teacher in every high school in Scotland?

That goes back to the crux of the challenge that we face. Digital skills shortages and challenges affect every single sector, and there is a rising demand for people with digital skills. Unfortunately, the teaching profession has been subject to that challenge as well. However, we put in additional support to support career changers from the digital sector into STEM subjects, which I would encourage people to avail themselves of.

I will talk about apprenticeships and the comments of Conservative members in particular. As far as I am concerned, Pam Gosal was not so much Confucius as confused on those matters—as, indeed, was Megan Gallacher, who referred to us missing our 2019 target of 30,000 apprenticeships. However, our 2019 target was for 27,000 apprenticeships and we delivered 27,270.

Tess White’s suggestion that the numbers have been falling year on year is fundamentally flawed. In 2016-17, there were 26,262 starts. In 2017-18, there were 27,145 starts. In 2018-19, there were 27,270 starts. In 2019-20, there were 27,875 starts. Tess White might have been confusing the experience here with the experience south of the border, under her party’s Government, where, over the same period, there was a decline of 172,400 in apprenticeship starts—a 35 per cent decline, compared with a 6 per cent increase in Scotland.

I hoped that, in his closing speech, the minister would address rural skills, which Emma Harper asked about. I recently asked the Government how many female butchers there are in Scotland, and the answer was 15 to 20. How does that demonstrate that the Scottish Government is addressing the gender skills gap as well as the overall skills gap?

I recognise that there is gender segregation across a range of apprenticeship frameworks, which is not acceptable. That is why Skills Development Scotland has a programme to ensure that there is improvement in that regard, and not just in the area that Rachael Hamilton mentioned.

Ms Hamilton mentioned Emma Harper’s comments, so let me also say that I would be delighted to meet Ms Harper to discuss how we address the issues that she raised about the rural workforce. We have a rural skills action plan, which is working to that end.

On apprenticeships more widely, I am genuinely perplexed by the Conservatives’ claim that last year’s figures were anything other than demonstrative of the reality of the impact of Covid-19. I have just set out the figures for the previous years; the one factor that was different last year was Covid-19. There is a further, vivid demonstration of that reality: the figures that are out this morning—they are hot off the press—show that, by the end of quarter 2 this year, there were 11,104 modern apprenticeship starts, which is an increase of 7,471 on the figure for that period last year. That is a clear demonstration of the impact of Covid-19.

Pauline McNeill asked me to listen to what she said, including her practical remarks about the website. I will be happy to take away her point; I cannot promise to fix the issue myself, but I will certainly see whether the people who can do so can have a look at it.

Ms McNeill also said that leadership should continue to be invested in people such as Sandy Begbie. I am happy to tell her that Sandy Begbie remains the chair of the implementation group for the young persons guarantee and is chair of the Developing the Young Workforce employers group. He is very much involved and very much leading on the matter.

Mr Whitfield’s remarks were a bit confusing. He seemed very concerned about an answer that I provided previously. He talked about the need to establish KPIs and to support the tertiary sector. I respectfully suggest to him that the answer that I gave at a particular time does not represent the end of the story and that there have been subsequent developments. I have said that KPIs will be published.

On Mr Whitfield’s remarks about the need for support for the tertiary education sector in the context of the young persons guarantee, I am happy to say that this year we invested a further £10 million to create 5,000 additional opportunities in the college sector. One example in that regard is the partnership between Edinburgh College and NHS Lothian to boost healthcare skills. Edinburgh College covers part of the area that Mr Whitfield represents, so I would have thought that he would know about the programme and about the investment that we have made. We have also allocated £3.5 million for a graduate talent internship programme.

On the young persons guarantee, what will success look like for any young person with a disability?

At its core, it will be participation in the young persons guarantee. It is about ensuring that such a young person gets to take part in the programme, just as any other young person can. That is the simple and straightforward answer to the member’s simple and straightforward question.

I welcome the debate. I say again that, despite the rhetoric that was deployed, there is more agreement among us than anyone who is watching might conclude that there is.

I make the point again that I want a skills system that is responsive to economic and societal need. It has to be responsive to the process of technological change that Michael Marra spoke about, and the challenges in securing labour as a result of our withdrawal from the EU. We need a skills system that is responsive to sectoral changes resulting from the imperative of reacting to the environmental crisis. We must ensure that the skills system is geared towards that and that no one is left behind. The young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund are geared towards that end. I am committed to delivering that type of skills system. That is what I will focus on and it is what this Government will focus on.