Will the Autumn Budget drive equality in the economy? – Business leaders respond

In his Autumn Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged funds to upskilling talent to stem the skills shortage, but where's the investment in the disabled talent pool?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Autumn Budget includes investments in skills-building and childcare support but has failed to include disabled talent in its’ build back’ plans following COVID-19.

This year’s Autumn Budget is full of forward-looking pledges that seek to firm up Britain’s economy with skilled talent, including those from overseas, ready for a digital future. But interventions may not be specific enough, with some underrepresented groups failing to be addressed in the pledges.

The Government’s investment in skills development

A significant feature of this year’s Autumn Budget was the Government’s pledge of £3.8 billion for skills and education, including its promise to increase the number of tech-related skills boot camps, which will be crucial in stopping the digital skills shortage.

There will also be £1.6 billion given to support T Levels, £550 million for adult skills, and £170 million for apprenticeships and training.

To attract skilled international talent to roles at fast-growing UK businesses, Sunak has announced that more funding will be given to the Scale-Up Visa system, designed to fast-track skilled migrant workers into these roles.

Camellia Chan, CEO and Founder of Flexxon, a flash storage solution for industries including cybersecurity, said: “There is a global shortage of talent in technology, particularly cybersecurity and those specialising in AI and SSD, so the UK government’s investment in skills and education is welcome news.

“Seeking employees from other parts of the world is one way to plug the skills gap, but nurturing local tech talent is absolutely crucial. For the UK, the increased investment in T-levels and the National Skills Fund are two positive initiatives. What’s more, the 24,000 traineeships and £550 million towards skills boot camps in areas such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity are incredibly exciting. These schemes will create a tech workforce of diverse talent with different ages, genders, nationalities, and domains to create an impactful and innovative environment in the UK and beyond.”

Paramjit Uppal, CEO and Founder of AND Digital, a digital capabilities firm, said that there needs to be more investment in software design learning. “The UK needs more skilled people who can build software and data solutions for every organisation – the gap in the needs of large and small, private and public sector organisations and the availability of talent is the single biggest competitive threat to the UK.”

More workers from STEM backgrounds

The Government has also promised “targeted investment” into STEM subjects such as maths, chemistry, and biology to boost the number of skilled workers from these backgrounds.

For Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO and Co-founder of IT firm Content Guru, the skills shortage can be plugged by targeting younger people, especially girls, and encouraging them to consider a STEM-related learning and career journey.

He said: “Output from the education system needs to change faster. Business needs more IT-type people being produced, and we need a rapid increase in women graduating with STEM skills. Women are half of the workforce, yet they barely exist in technology roles. Without any need for immigration, we have a whole vast untapped potential skills pool.

“However, the root is at A-Level choices. For various reasons, girls of school age are not being attracted to maths and science subjects, which self perpetuates. Secondary education is where the shaping happens that leads to subject choices for university degrees, which industries harvest. Secondary schools are where the focus needs to be.

Support for parents and better wages

The chancellor has promised a £170 million investment by 2024-25 to increase the hourly rate paid to early years providers to deliver the Government’s free childcare hours, which is good news for working parents struggling with the costs of childcare.

People in low-income employment look to be more empowered, too, with Sunak’s pledge to increase the National Living Wage from £8.91 an hour to £9.50.

Jonathan Richards, CEO of HR software firm Breathe, said that firms should focus on nurturing employee wellbeing and retention. The buoyant jobs market and rising salaries mean talent has more choice.

“It comes as no surprise that work culture and salary issues have been in focus for this Autumn Budget, following months of discussion around labour rights and staff retention concerns. The ‘Great Resignation’ or most recently the term coined ‘The Great Reshuffle’ comes to mind; Employers are tackling the backlash of what has become a widespread revolt against low pay and long hours experienced across all industries.

“For hospitality and retail sectors especially, a wage increase is a step in the right direction, but it’s certainly no silver bullet. Employers should focus on nurturing existing staff and showing them respect for the work they do. Whatever the outcome of the Budget, focusing on staff retention and fostering a culture where people want to stay and support each other will be the key to sustainable growth.”

The Budget and the disability gap

While the Government’s decision to give £5.9 billion of additional funding to tackle NHS waiting times has been positively received, proponents of disability inclusion have said that treatment follow-ups should be quicker to boost recovery and get patients back to work.

Angela Matthews, Head of Policy at Business Disability Forum, said: “We welcome the additional funding to help reduce NHS waiting times. Even before the pandemic, employers told us that some employees were waiting nine months to receive an initial assessment with a consultant.

“But focusing just on diagnosis is not enough. Employers are experiencing people staying off sick until they get treated, not just until they get assessed. Diagnostics and testing need to be promptly followed by treatment and getting the individual to ‘recovery’ as quickly as possible. Rehabilitation is a huge chasm in the NHS; where it can, the NHS is getting employees ready to leave hospital, but it is not getting them ready to return to work.

“If the Government is serious about closing the disability employment gap and getting people back to work following a period of long-term sickness absence, it needs to think much more strategically. By not doing so, the Government is adding to the staffing pressures currently facing businesses. It is also increasing the cost of living with a disability.

“We know that many disabled people have to use their Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to buy in medication, mobility equipment – such as wheelchairs and sticks – and to pay privately for services that help them manage their conditions and stay in work. These are costs which Government should be covering through the NHS.”

While the Government had pledged widely to invest in upskilling talent, Matthews has warned it should consider the employment needs of disabled people, who remain far more likely to be unemployed than others: “We need to hear more on how disabled people fit into the Government’s plans for jobs and skills. The disability employment rate remains stagnant despite lower unemployment generally and a stronger economy.

“We need programmes that are specifically targeted at disabled people and the barriers they face in accessing and remaining in employment. This includes an overhaul of existing support, such as Access to Work – a scheme that isn’t working for either disabled people or employers. Further investment in skills must also include digital skills, accessible technologies, and assistive IT technologies. A focus on work and skills must include everyone.”

To read the Autumn Budget in full, please click here.


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