Predictably, everyone has been pretty outraged by the new (and now deleted) advert encouraging people to retrain and get a job in ‘cyber’. If you haven’t seen it, the ad (which features both HM government and CyberFirst logos) depicts a ballet dancer tying her shoes. The text on the image reads ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet). Reskill. Reboot. Retrain’.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has been quick to distance the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from the advert, referring to it as ‘crass’, but it does mean that Dowden has put his department at odds with a campaign quite clearly backed by the government at large. CyberFirst, a programme run by the National Cyber Security Centre and backed by the government, aims to help young people get into tech. Clearly, even if Dowden thinks the campaign is ‘crass’, many people didn’t. 

Dowden is actually right – the campaign is fundamentally flawed and couldn’t have come at a worse time. With chancellor Rishi Sunak having been accused (not quite correctly) last week of singling out workers in the arts and culture sector and encouraging them to retrain, this latest advert seems to be a tone-deaf development in an already faltering PR strategy. 

Beyond the fact that the advert is quite simply insensitive and ill-timed, there are several issues at hand. For one, the CyberFirst section of the National Cyber Security Centre website mainly includes resources for young people. The ‘advanced’ course is marketed as being for 16 and 17 year olds and requires prior knowledge and experience. The most basic course is aimed at 12 and 13 year olds. It seems that this course is not for adults or indeed non-adolescents wishing to retrain. In fact, even if you are a teenager, you still might not be able to find a course if you haven’t progressed beyond the basics by age 14. 

Fundamentally, the CyberFirst website is not fit for purpose – especially if that purpose is retraining adults who have had previous careers. It is very easy to tell people to retrain but the reality of retraining is usually far more difficult. Training often requires a significant investment of both time and money – something that many people simply cannot afford.

If you have a family, or a mortgage or rent commitments, giving up the daily grind to up-skill may leave you unable to meet your non-negotiable financial outlay. And for many people, even without reducing working hours, the cost of up-skilling is simply too much. And for those out of work, how many are in a position where they can fund themselves through three years of a degree? Or even through a few evening classes that come with a price tag? People will simply take the first job they can find. That job may be in a sector like hospitality, and it may offer little to no security – but it may be the only thing an individual can do to get by. This is the harsh reality of retraining: it’s often not an option. Indeed, a 2019 report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that adult education budgets had been cut by 45% since 2010. Ironically, people are being told to retrain by the very party that has spent a decade systematically undoing the options for adults to embark on new training. I suppose you could say it is nothing short of predictable. 

You see, it appears that the government hasn’t really put much of an effort into firming up its training and adult education infrastructure. Its Kickstart jobs scheme for young people may provide up to 250,000 roles for young people on universal credit, but this is not nearly enough considering that redundancies this autumn alone may potentially exceed 700,000. It has made a blunder with this campaign for sure, but it seems that the rhetoric of retraining in and of itself is all style and no substance.

Quite the opposite from the real Fatimas of this world. It’s bizarre to think that no-one picked up on this, but using the image of a ballet dancer was perhaps one of the biggest faux pas the government could have made. To train to be a ballet dancer in the first place takes years of hard work and sacrifice. That anyone could so flippantly and casually suggest that a ballet dancer retrains signifies that they have failed to consider the effort that went into achieving such a goal in the first place. The government has failed to even countenance people’s broken hopes and dreams – and has instead placed the burden and pressure of retraining and adapting on those who are suffering so much from the fallout of this crisis. In short, the government is commanding us to jump whichever way we can just to get along – despite the fact that its elites remain cushioned in a veritable armchair of job security. That’s the new crass normal for you. 

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