Jane Gray talks to Philip Whiteman as he steps down as CEO of sector skills council, Semta, about the approach he has taken to addressing industry skills gaps, the successes he has had and the work still left to do.
Attend any industry conference and it is only really when skills are discussed that fire lights up the eyes of spokespeople. More skilled people, better skilled people, new skills for emerging industries; the debate never grows cold.
In the roots
Although he has not worked in industry, Whiteman has a strong affiliation with the precarious position skilled professionals who do have faced in the past. “I am from the Blyth in the North East and I lived there at the time that the shipyard and the coal mine – which between them employed more or less everyone in the community – were closed,” he explains.
“I took my job with EITB because I remembered how truly sad it was to see those highly skilled people thrown into unemployment,” says Whiteman. “Government tried to create incubator projects. But that degree of impact takes decades to redress.”
More than 30 years on, Whiteman is happy to report that the area is now developing pertinent skills and capabilities in the manufacture of wind turbines.
It’s a fact that is a blessing and a curse to Philip Whiteman, chief executive of sector skills council, Semta. For while industry leaders are deeply passionate about the value of engineering and manufacturing skills, they are also largely dissatisfied with the strength of the UK’s skills base and worried about industry’s ability to compete globally both today and in the future.
Taking this in his stride, however, Whiteman explains the rationale behind the approach he has taken to try and satisfy this demanding set of judges and jury.
“I am not from industry,” he openly admits. “I started out in the mid-eighties in the City and it was not until 1991 what I joined the Engineering Industry Training Board that I started to learn more about the specific concerns involved.”
The knowledge Whiteman gained in the financial services sector was however in short supply at the engineering training body. “They wanted someone to come in and make the organisation, which had just been privatised, more commercial and efficient,” he says. But it turned out Philip’s financial experience was useful to the EITB in more than one way.
“The work I had done with Deloitte fed into a government backed initiative called the Business Expansion Scheme. We basically had to identify good prospects for this and help market them with the venture capitalist organisations and banks. I learned to differentiate a good company from one that was not going to be successful. To identify gaps in management skills and to understand the kinds of skills companies need to develop as they move from being small to medium to large.”
“I have sought to work collaboratively with other SSC’s for manufacturing, but, apart from our constructive work with Cogent, I have never been able to establish partnership with mutual benefit. I think other councils have missed opportunities to support their sectors” – Philip Whiteman, CEO, Semta
As EITB struggled with achieving a massive culture change, away from being an organisation of civil servants focussed on auditing training capability in companies and toward an approach which talked to companies about their training needs, this knowledge proved immensely helpful.
Fast forward 2004 and Whitman’s varied contributions to the development of the organisation by then known as Semta (see box) were recognised in his appointment as CEO. “I set out three ambitions for myself then, of what I wanted to achieve in five years,” says Whiteman. First, I knew we had to become employer led. Second, I needed to develop the Semta management team and, third, I wanted to sort out the financial shambles of the organisation once and for all and establish a strategy which would mean we no longer needed to use our investment fund, or the profits of our awarding body EAL, to pay for our operational activities.”
On the second two points Whiteman says that “those left in the management team at Semta have been along for the ride and are now the right mix of people to take the organisation forward. I am also proud to say that in March this year I submitted a financial plan to the board which will see my ambitions in that area finally achieved – it took me eight years, not five, but we got there in the end.”
It is his progress with ambition number one, however, which Whiteman rates as his greatest achievement at the helm of Semta. “My most important work during my time as CEO has been to create employer engagement and leadership in our skills development programmes,” confirms Whiteman.
“Sir Alan Jones’ [chairman emeritus at Toyota UK and Semta] help was indispensible in doing this. He got the CEOs of BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, GKN, Rolls-Royce and Qinetiq actively involved on our board.” Whiteman says that while, on his own part, he was very focussed on results and outcomes, Sir Alan brought understanding to the development of Semta as a body to be trusted by industry and brought about high level ownership of industry skills issues.
But while this big hitting buy-in has raised Semta’s profile in important circles, Whiteman does admit that it may have compounded a problem which still challenges the organisation. “I don’t doubt that our focus on engagement with these large companies set us up for challenges in getting engagement with SMEs. I never quite feel that we have cracked that challenge.”
Employers still often complain about the complexity of the skills landscape, but Whiteman’s career bares testament to the huge consolidation work which has been achieved in the last 20 years.
In from the beginning, Whiteman assisted in the merging of the Engineering Industry Training Board with a succession of parallel training bodies including the Marine and Engineering Training Association and the Science Technology and Mathematics Council. In 2003, as financial director, he led the bid to license the bolstered organisation as a sector skills council and Semta came into being.
With such a broad base of sector responsibilities, Semta now often receives the lion’s share of government funding for industry skills development – a fact which has not always been appreciated by more niche councils. “I have sought to work collaboratively with other SSC’s for manufacturing, but, apart from our constructive work with Cogent, I have never been able to establish partnership with mutual benefit. I think other councils have missed opportunities to support their sectors,” he concludes.
It is essential for Semta going forward that this is given even greater attention that it has so far. Whiteman explains, “A lot of the exciting and successful training solutions we have launched only have pump prime funding. We have had success in getting industry support for the continuation of the Talent Retention Solution and the Women and Work schemes. But the funding has all come from large companies.” If services like these are to continue benefitting industry, SMEs too will have to be convinced that they are valuable enough to make them reach for their wallets.
See www.themanufacturer. com for our online feature examining the management skills companies need in order to successfully deliver an apprenticeship programme. This feature includes contribution from Semta’s awarding body EAL as well as insight from industry.