Can local employment training help address the UK’s productivity puzzle?

Engineering trainees in Germany. Image: Getty.

Labour market data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the employment rate has never been so high. But real wages are still below their 2007 peak and productivity remains stagnant, suggesting that despite the employment-led recovery, some important labour market challenges remain.

As stressed in the recent Centre for Cities briefing on the industrial strategy, a key problem of the UK economy is its skills base. The skills of any workforce are crucial for building a strong economy and improving businesses, growth and wages. But as shown in our “Competing with the Continent” report, most UK cities are lagging behind their European counterparts in this area.

There is evidence that employment training can be effective in tackling this issue, by not only bringing people back into work but by also helping them acquire new skills and move up on the earnings ladder. In around half of the evaluations on this topic reviewed by the What Works Centre, employment training had a positive impact on wages and employment.

But in terms of outcomes, the way the training is designed matters. Looking at the duration of training schemes, the review found that short programmes are more effective for less formal training activity, while longer programmes generate gains when the content is skill-intensive – but that the benefits take longer to materialise.

When it comes to the format of the training, on-the-job training programmes tend to outperform classroom-based ones. This is because employers engage directly with the course and the participants tend to acquire skills that match more closely what employers need. This could also be due to the fact that the participants have already established a relationship with their potential employer.


But the evidence on the effectiveness of different types of delivery remains inconclusive. Looking at the public versus private delivery, the review did not come to any strong conclusions on which one is more effective. 

The evidence was also inconclusive on whether a programme delivered nationally is more effective than one delivered locally – none of the evaluations reviewed looked at this issue specifically. But understanding the role that local government can play in tackling the skills issue is crucial for two reasons.

Firstly, our work shows that the UK is not a single national labour market but a series of overlapping ones, and skills programmes can bring benefits if tailored to meet the demands of the local economy (as argued in our city deals and skills report). Our case studies library provides some concrete examples of how this might work. Secondly, the newly elected metro mayors can make a difference on this policy area as skills is one of the powers being devolved.

The government seems to be becoming more and more aware of this local element with the recent announcement of new employment schemes that will more closely reflect the different economic realities seen in different places.

But what the What Works Centre study reveals is the lack of evidence on what policies are effective in this area. As my colleague Elena Magrini argued in her recent blog, to make the most of these schemes, local authority officers involved in these new programmes should become the champions of evidence.

This means that, when implementing these schemes, local authorities should build on the existing evidence that both the What Works Centre and our case studies library provide. Once these schemes are up and running, they should be accurately monitored so that we can improve our knowledge of what works in this important area.

 Gabriele Piazza is a researcher at the Centre for Cities. This post was originally published on the think tank's blog.

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City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.