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We need to talk about training

Innovative technologies are constantly presenting new challenges for policymakers, with automation, artificial intelligence and rumours of a possible robot takeover all vying for political attention. Against this saturated backdrop, talking about training can be a tough sell. 


When it comes to preparing ourselves for the future of work, however, training shouldn’t be seen as an unfashionable distraction from the bigger issues of our time. Whether its improving productivity or combatting skills shortages, upskilling is key to addressing some of today’s most pressing challenges.

As the pace of technological advancement intensifies, the shelf-life of relevant knowledge is rapidly diminishing. The notion of a “job for life” is becoming less appealing, and people are increasingly switching industries and combining multiple careers across their working lives – with flexibility, resilience and a commitment to lifelong learning becoming vital skills to succeed. In recognition of this change, the government has announced a new national retraining scheme to help people upskill and reskill as the economy changes.

IPSE’s new report, ‘Eight ways to upskill the self-employed’, puts forward practical solutions to ensure the self-employed are not overlooked in the government’s skills drive. As it stands, the government’s skills strategy remains stubbornly based on an outdated employer-employee model – with no mention of the self-employed in the government’s most recent industrial strategy. 

This is a serious problem for self-employed people, who we know highly value developing their skills and knowledge as a vital measure of career progression. But it is also a problem for the economy as a whole, as training is key to increasing tax revenue and tackling the UK’s productivity problem. With one in seven of us now working for ourselves, a skills strategy for the self-employed is long overdue. 

Improving the flexibility of training must be a priority. The self-employed typically have unpredictable work schedules, which can make finding a regular time to undertake training very challenging. Online, bitesize training courses can provide this flexibility – and are favoured by 63 per cent of IPSE members – yet knowing where to look and which providers to trust can feel like a guessing game. IPSE itself is working to address this, and has developed a learning hub with recommended training courses to help members narrow down their search. The government can also play its part by collating trusted training courses delivered by the private sector, and signposting freelancers to them via a dedicated self-employment hub on 

Efforts should also be made to tackle the question of affordability. This can be a particular challenge for the vulnerable self-employed, as taking time to invest in training may mean passing up the next paid opportunity. A closer look at existing support schemes reveals room for improvement. The New Enterprise Allowance (NEA), for example, is one of the few schemes available to those on low-incomes who wish to start a business, but a number of design flaws need to be addressed. For instance, the scheme needs to be made available to more disabled people who use Jobcentre Plus (JCP), as currently only seven per cent of JCP customers are eligible to apply, and more mentoring support should be provided after participants begin trading. 

While lifelong learning has long been given lip-service from government, it seems policymakers are increasingly taking note of its pivotal role in ensuring our labour market is prepared for the future. And, as training rises up the political agenda, it is crucial the distinctive needs of the self-employed are considered. This means taking steps to make training fairer, more affordable and more accessible for Britain’s flexible workforce. 

Meet the author

Imogen Farhan

Policy and External Affairs Officer