Skills for growth

Posted on 4 Jan 2010 by The Manufacturer

In November 2009, the Government released the latest National Skills Strategy which it says will provide Britain with the talents to take advantage of global opportunities in the economic recovery. Mark Young weighs up the reactions from some key industry commentators.

We once had a pretty sturdy racehorse.

But we let it get fat and it fell. It is the only horse we’ve got so our only option is to pick it up, make it strong again, and try and turn it into the champion it was. The world has changed now though and horses need different diets than they used to if they are to be fighting fit. The problem is that we don’t have the right food for the horse and at the moment it doesn’t look like we know where to get it.

It is superfluous to point out that the horse is our economy and the food it needs (as ordained by government) is skills in high tech, low carbon industries. Late last year business secretary Lord Peter Mandelson presented a new National Skills Strategy to Parliament called Skills for Growth, convinced that he is not ‘flogging a dead horse’.

“Investing in skills is a vital part of this Government’s growth plan for economic recovery,” said Mandelson. “We need to get skills policy right in a way that no government has fully done before.” Frustratingly for Labour, if they have got it right whether they’ll be around to reap the rewards is a separate question.

The complexity that surrounds government’s skills provision structure, with many different bodies seemingly duplicated in their purpose, has formed the basis for long standing criticism.

Chief among the measures in the new strategy is the discontinuation of 30 skills quangos.

It was a move roundly applauded by trade organisations. “The complexity at times has been quite confusing for many companies,” said Angela Coleshill, HR director of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). “Employers have been crying out for simplification of the current confused and cluttered system,” added Steve Radley, director of policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and TM columnist.

Consult with employers first?
But Coleshill has an industry peer who has something of a vested interest in this matter.

Jack Matthews, boss of the sector food and drink skills council Improve, agrees that “employers are bewildered by the sheer number of different bodies,” but he said announcing the number of organisations that will be cut infers that the authorities have already decided which specific agencies make up that number. If this is the case, the decision will have been made without the consultation of the employers who use skills agencies and some valuable services to UK businesses could potentially be lost.

“As the purpose of simplification is to make the system easier for employees and people seeking training to use, it should be done in full consultation with them, the customers,” said Matthews. “What we must get at the end of this process is a skills system which is fit for purpose to meet employers’ needs.” Matthews was also critical of another element of the strategy, saying government has “missed a trick” in making funding for training reliant on the attainment of full qualifications.

“Full qualifications often involve training and learning in areas not directly relevant to the specific needs of a business,” he said. “With the new credit and unit-based Qualifications and Credit Framework, there is now an opportunity to link funding directly to the attainment of specific skills.

This would make the system more efficient and would give employers better control over how their workforce develops skills.”

Regional approach not the best
In a related measure, only qualifications approved by sector skills councils will qualify for public funding from 2011. This, unsurprisingly, struck a sweeter chord with Matthews. “As employer-facing bodies, sector skills councils are in the strongest position to judge whether vocational and work-based qualifications are fit for purpose to meet employers’ needs, so this is a very sensible step. It will help ensure that funds are directed where they are needed most.” Some sector skills council may have to give way in the quango cull though, with the report suggesting that a review will be made of duplicated services across the 25 individual SSCs. It looks ominous for Regional Skills Partnerships too, with the report declaring their existence as separate factions to Regional Development Agencies obsolete.

The latter is a sentiment that is sure to find favour with EEF’s director of policy Steve Radley but he was less enthused about other areas which gave continued backing for and even widened the scope of Regional Development Agencies overall. He contends that a sector-led view “will most accurately reflect the needs of business,” as opposed to an approach based on locality.

As well as 35,000 extra apprenticeship places created over the next two years, apprenticeships will be given UCAS points to allow people that have completed the programme to continue into further education and there will be one thousand grants of £1,000 to ease the financial burden of this. These are the means toward the “clear vocational route from apprenticeship to technician to foundation degree and beyond” that Mandelson sees as integral to economic growth.

“We are pleased that the strategy has recommended provision of additional funding for apprentices, and the areas of the economy that can provide the most jobs, including for example the area of advanced manufacturing,” said the FDF’s Coleshill.

Apprenticeships that work
George Kessler CBE is deputy chairman of Kesslers International, a mid-sized designer and manufacturer of merchandising point-of-sale and display goods.

He has long been a campaigner for effective vocational training as the key driver for British industry. Regarding apprenticeships, he reiterated Matthews’ point that the skills acquired through the programmes must be driven by employer demand.

“We value the drive for apprenticeships, providing it leads to useful Level 3 and 4 NVQs,” he said. “At Kesslers it is very easy to get day release arranged for staff to work on PC skills and anthropology, but not engineering or polymer science, which might actually be of benefit to the company.” Kessler’s overall view of the strategy is that it is a “typical Mandelson document; well thought through, one that could make a real difference.” But he has reservations about the lasting legacy of previous skills initiatives and strategies. Often the same people seen in previous skills strategies are redeployed to a new programme with a new job title, but does the delivery of appropriate skills to employers improve? “We must take care that we are not just repackaging the same strategies in different guises,” he said. Similarly, government and industry must learn from mistakes from the past. “For example, Training for Work a funding stream which provided out of work people with vocational skills based on up-to-date real market needs,” Kessler explains. “It looked like a good initiative and it began to work in practice. But the money ran out and that was the end of it. We need to put our full and continued support for the things that actually work.” Kessler explains. “It looked like a good initiative and it began to work in practice. But the money ran out and it was ditched. We need to put our full and continued support for the things that actually work.”

The reaction to the new skills strategy is mainly positive but most commentators reserved a word of caution; skills provisions need to be married up to real employer needs. This was a view summarised by the CBI’s director of education and skills, Susan Anderson: “There are tough decisions ahead for the Government, but it is right to focus on delivering valuable skills such as science, technology and engineering, and high-skilled apprenticeships,” she said. “The real test for any new system will be whether it delivers the high-quality training and skills that firms and the economy actually needs.” Making a horse a champion is a difficult thing.

It needs natural ability as well as hard work, determination, a good diet and the best training.

Government thinks with this skills strategy it has shortened the odds for UK business; whether we are indeed first to get our noses over the line or whether once again we take a tumble half way around we will have to wait and see.