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Do boot camps deliver the best vocational training?

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Vocational training has traditionally been delivered at work and in the day-release classroom. But participants in Generation UK’s digital skills boot camp, earlier this year, acquired theirs without even leaving the house.

For 15 weeks, the dozen or so young learners joined each other online for an intensive course in data analytics, hearing from experts in industry, working on independent projects, and learning the basics in coding.

“The young people we’ve seen come through the programme have been fantastic,” says Clem Pickering, coach at Infinity Works, the digital consultancy running the boot camp with Generation UK, an upskilling non-profit organisation. “They’ll finish with the skills to get a data engineering role.”

The programme is one of more than 100 boot camps backed by the UK government, as part of a wider bid to expand life-long vocational training in the country.

Boot camps — intensive courses of up to 16 weeks — are a favourite among UK policymakers eager to plug the skills gaps that have held back economic productivity for decades.

Since 2020, the UK Treasury has poured more than £100mn into them, to provide the skills most in demand, from data science and artificial intelligence to lorry driving and construction. Learners who complete the course are guaranteed a job interview.

Unemployed people receive full government funding for their courses. For those who are already in work but want to boost their careers, employers foot 30 per cent of the bill and the state the rest.

Part of the appeal of boot camps, supporters say, is that their brevity means learners do not have to forgo too much in earnings or put their lives on hold, compared with other life-long learning routes.

“They’re an exciting addition to the skills landscape,” says Simon Ashworth, director of policy for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. “They bridge the skills gaps in a more flexible way . . . you can see why it’s a sweet spot.”

While boot camps in construction and other trades are held in-person, many are also still online, giving participants a better opportunity to work flexibly and arrange classes around responsibilities, such as childcare.

Government analysis suggests that these digital boot camps have been more successful at attracting women than digital businesses are: nearly half of the students who enrol in them are women, compared with 20 per cent in the digital workforce.

However, whether boot camps are the most effective way to meet the skills challenge is not clear. The most recent Department for Education assessment, released in December 2021, points to limited success, with one in five participants dropping out and only 54 per cent of those who did complete their course getting a new or better job.

The DfE also notes that the underlying data — collected from boot camp providers across the UK — was inconsistently reported and probably underestimated the number who did not complete their courses.

Sue Pember, policy director of Holex, the professional body for adult education providers, says that although these reporting shortcomings make it hard to judge the success of programmes, there evidently have been some problems.

Sue Pember, policy director of Holex
Sue Pember, Holex policy director: boot camp learners who have been out of education for a long time may need extra support

“Initial subjects were really narrow and didn’t really fit what jobs were available last year,” she says. In addition, support and clear progression routes for learners were not always in place, so people who had been out of education for a long time lacked the tools they needed either to study or to get a job afterwards.

“People who might be unemployed start these things and drop out,” Pember notes. “They get demoralised because they’ve had a bad experience with the course.”

Boot camps are part of a broader move towards what the UK government calls “modular learning”. Its aim is to shift the default for adult learning away from the three-year degree and towards more short courses in targeted, work-specific areas — partly by changing student finance rules to allow people to fund a wider range of courses using loans.

The skills gaps it is trying to close are not confined to the UK. Stefano Colli-Lanzi, chief executive and founder of human resources company GI Group Holding, says the global labour market currently suffers from a “worldwide lack” — in terms both of talent and of the matching of skills to jobs — that traditional training methods struggle to cope with.

A trainee lorry driver stands next to his vehicle
Going places: lorry driving is among the in-demand skills that the UK would like more people to acquire © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Something “unique” is happening to the labour market, he adds. “The speed of this revolution is much faster than the school systems and the ability of the companies to follow these trends. We need to change the actors who are responsible for this upskilling process.”

But complicating matters in the UK is a rapid churn in government policy over many years. A recent report by the Learning and Work Institute, a think-tank, highlighted an “alphabet soup of often shortlived policies and institutions” designed to address persistent worries over the UK’s skills base. It also noted that “access to training is highly unequal”, to the disadvantage of low-paid, low-qualified workers.

There are other approaches. Pember singles out Singapore — which, since 2015, has run a life-long learning initiative called SkillsFuture — as a “consistent system that doesn’t flip and flop” and focuses on the individual.

Singapore gives all 25-year-olds a credit to spend on government-subsidised vocational learning programmes, offers young people and mid-career workers career guidance and skills checks, and brings all streams of vocational and university learning under the same umbrella so that people can easily transfer between courses.

The percentage of older adults participating in continuing education in Singapore has increased from 30 to 48 per cent, according to a report by campaign group WorldSkills.

“The outcomes are spectacular,” says Anthony Painter, director of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute. “What it did was give the individual an incentive to engage with the system.”

The success of interventions like boot camps will depend on consistency, he argues. “If there is a collective will to . . . deliver systems that remain over time, we can get over the policy back-and-forth,” Painter says. “But we need to learn.”

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