What works for employment training? The key questions we need to answer to aid a skills-led COVID-19 recovery

What works for employment training?

One thing we can be sure of is that skills and employment training have an important role to play in the UK’s recovery, both for individuals and the economy as a whole. But what does this mean in practice?

Danielle Mason

The employment impacts of COVID-19 are not yet fully visible. While UK unemployment has not risen as much as expected, other figures suggest the data may not be fully capturing the extent of this change yet. It is possible the furlough scheme is still masking a reduction in viable employment that will only be seen fully after the scheme ends.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that skills and employment training will have an important role to play in the UK’s recovery, both for individuals and the economy as a whole. This would be the case after any major economic shock, but there are reasons to believe it will be particularly true for the current crisis.

  • Firstly, it is not just unemployment that has prevented people from working. Furlough, illness and caring responsibilities have also kept people away from their jobs, leading them to miss out on the on-the-job experience that is central to skills development and maintenance.
  • Secondly, the distribution of jobs in the labour market has changed in response to COVID-induced trends, such as more online shopping and services. The nation’s skills will need to adapt to fit the new distribution, but we don’t know yet whether the trends will persist or reverse as pandemic restrictions lift.
  • Finally, even among those in stable employment, training needs are likely to have increased, with many people needing new skills to effectively and productively work from home.

In this context, questions about ‘what works’ to train and retrain working-age people are crucial. These questions will be at the heart of the upcoming roundtable discussion on training and re-skilling to aid the recovery – co-hosted by the International Public Policy Observatory and the Economics Observatory on Tuesday 20th April.

Evidence-based answers on what works for employment training

At the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, we aim to provide evidence-based and actionable answers to questions like these, to support people designing and delivering public policy. To help us do this, we have produced a series of systematic evidence reviews (published before the pandemic), including on employment training and apprenticeships.

Importantly, these reviews draw on studies which measure the impact of a programme or policy. And if a study finds improved outcomes but cannot rule out that this was the result of, say, wider economic trends rather than the intervention itself, then it isn’t included.

This approach means our findings have direct implications for the design and delivery of effective programmes and policies. For example, the employment training evidence review concludes that:

  • On-the-job training programmes tend to outperform classroom-based ones. Involving employers in design, and using activities that closely mirror actual jobs appear to be particularly important.
  • Shorter programmes (less than six months) are more effective for less formal training activity. When the content is skill-intensive, longer programmes deliver employment gains.
  • The state of the economy is not a major factor in the performance of training interventions; programme design features appear to be more important than macroeconomic factors.

Our reviews are accompanied by a series of toolkits, based on the review findings but which also draw on a wider range of practical examples. For example, the training-related toolkits examine the evidence for particular training design features, including: financial incentives, careers counselling, pre-qualifications, reminders, mentoring, in-work progression support, and high-involvement management practices.

What else do we need to know about employment training?

As well as providing useful insights for decision-makers, the reviews and toolkits also highlight how many questions have not yet been addressed by high-quality studies. For our employment training review, of more than 1,000 relevant studies, only 71 met our evidence standards. While this is a higher number than for most areas of local-growth policy, it is relatively small compared with, for example, the thousands of studies which assess the effectiveness of school-age education interventions – and therefore points to the need for better evaluation of employment training interventions.

Questions we can’t yet confidently answer include:

  • What types of programme are most cost-effective, given that more impactful programmes are often more expensive?
  • What are the best ways to involve employers in training design and delivery?
  • How does the effectiveness of interventions differ for participants from different groups (for men and women, younger workers and older workers, people from different ethnicities)?

We also need more evidence on the detail of programme delivery, such as:

  • what is the optimal length for different types of courses?
  • at what level should financial incentives and employer subsidies be set?
  • what type of training do the trainers themselves need?

Some of these evidence gaps are particularly frustrating given that, in general, training and skills interventions are particularly amenable to impact evaluations which compare different versions of a programme.

Three questions I will be bringing to the IPPO-ECO roundtable

Despite these gaps, however, the evidence on skills and training in general is relatively strong and positive, compared with that for other interventions aimed at improving local economic outcomes. This is perhaps to be expected given that differences in the skills composition of different local areas explain between 50% and 90% of wage disparities.

But while the evidence base gives us a good place to start, there is much more we need to know. With this in mind, there are three questions I will be bringing to the IPPO-ECO roundtable:

  • To what extent can evidence from previous studies be applied in the current context? And what specific features of the post-pandemic labour market do we need to consider?
  • How do we get the evidence to the right people? How should we present the evidence to greatest effect, and how do we reach a wider audience?
  • How can we ensure that new interventions are designed in a way that allows us to measure and compare their effectiveness, improving the evidence base ready for the next major economic shock?

Danielle Mason is Head of Policy at the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth