The First Minister has hailed this week’s vaccine news as “the beginning of the end” and in one sense she could be right. If Pfizer’s BNT162b2 and others that look set to follow do what they say on the tin, then the coming months may see the coronavirus health threat brought under control, which should in turn roll back the extensive restrictions on civil liberties that have crippled lives and businesses.

But when we do emerge, the world won’t look as it did before. This will be most evident in the high streets and shopping malls where gaping voids are opening up in stores vacated by well-known names such as Debenhams, M&Co, John Lewis, H&M, TM Lewin, Cath Kidston, Monsoon Accessorise, Marks & Spencer, Topshop and many, many more. According to the Centre for Retail Research, more than 15,000 stores have closed so far across the UK during this pandemic, with job losses of more than 140,000 and counting.

That’s just the retail toll. Add in large-scale redundancies across other sectors ranging from transportation to hospitality – and throw in the cuts that thousands of smaller suppliers to these industries have been forced to make – and projections are that unemployment could reach somewhere in the region of 8.5 per cent in the first half of next year, the equivalent of approximately 2.8 million people.

For many of these folks, it is not the beginning of the end, but rather the start of what could prove a long and difficult road back to financial stability. The answer, we are told, is to equip those coming out of shrinking sectors with the skills to join industries where there is high demand. This is a sensible way forward, but it will be neither easy nor cheap.

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Even before the pandemic took hold, organisations like the Confederation of British Industry were warning about the need for upskilling and retraining across the whole of the UK workforce. Speaking at the beginning of March during Scottish Apprenticeship Week, CBI Scotland director Tracy Black highlighted statistics indicating that nine out of 10 workers would require some form of reskilling by 2030, with one in six set to go through a “radical” job change.

Like many other things, Covid-19 has accelerated the pace at which this is happening. Indeed, there are few comparable times in history when such a large proportion of the workforce was so in need of urgent redeployment.

To prevent new skills gaps emerging, the CBI has estimated that the UK will need to spend an additional £130 billion over the next decade – equivalent to £13bn a year or £4,300 per worker. The cost of this would be shared by government and industry, but with a weak economy and massive pandemic debts to be repaid, the danger is that “more pressing” needs will be given priority to scarce resources.

Training providers are waiting to hear details later this month on the extension of Fair Start Scotland, the country’s first fully-devolved employment support service. As part of a £100m package of employment and training support announced in July in response to the coronavirus crisis, the Scottish Government has said Fair Start will run for a further two years to March 2023.

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Along with the JETS scheme run through the Department for Work and Pensions, Fair Start Scotland will account for a large chunk of government efforts to tackle the retraining challenge. The burning question is to what degree it will be funded, and on what terms?

The talk among training providers is that volumes will need to double from previous levels to have an appreciable impact on the mounting number of unemployed. Most recent figures show that a little more than 27,000 people joined Fair Start Scotland between its launch in April 2018 and the end of September 2020. Of those, 8,329 went on to start a new job, with 71% sustaining employment for at least three months.

At last count in November, when Scotland’s unemployment rate stood at 4.5%, there were 126,000 unemployed people across the country. With further significant job losses inevitable in the coming months, doubling the size of Fair Start looks like a minimum requirement.

There are practical issues as well, both for the training providers and the people they are trying to help. While JETS is weighted towards service fee payments – a minimum guarantee to ensure trainers can cover their running costs – Fair Start Scotland operates largely on a results basis, with payments tied to successful job placements. Getting that model to stack up in markets where job opportunities will be limited for some time to come doesn’t bode well for getting massive numbers of people re-skilled in a new industry.

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But what of those industries where there are widespread shortages of workers? The IT and care sectors have been crying out for years for more staff, and the pandemic has only made the need more acute.

Speak to IT recruiters and they will tell you that much of the demand is for skills at the higher end of the spectrum, as opposed to entry-level positions. Add to that the fact that a rush of work looks to be forthcoming as major projects that were put on hold earlier in the year are now being revived; there will be plenty to do, but the need is for people who can hit the ground running, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for newbies to find their feet.

As one care provider describes it, her business faces similar issues. Unable because of virus restrictions to arrange the usual level of face-to-face training, she needs experienced staff who are familiar with the protocols of looking after clients in their homes, particularly when it comes to the use of PPE.

These mismatches would, of course, balance themselves out in the medium to long-term if workers start re-training today. Experience would be gained, and people would work their way up the ladder to more advanced skill levels.

However, that takes time that a lot of newly-redundant people don’t have. Many, particularly those with young families, need to put earning before learning: research from posting site Totaljobs has suggested that 1.9 million people in the UK with children under the age of 16 would struggle to take on training.

The shift to comprehensive, universal and continuous education in the workplace will be a complex process that neither industry, government nor individuals can achieve in isolation. A consolidated effort is required, and it needs to come together soon to rebuff the worst of an unemployment crisis leading to economic ills for which there is no vaccine.