Skills strategy: Rigour or rigor mortis?

Posted on 3 Apr 2013 by Tim Brown

Following last year’s Richard Review of apprenticeships, the Holt Review, Employer Ownership of Skills Pilot, and the Heseltine report on growth, the Government has revealed its latest set of plans to assist business and employment – changes to the skills strategy and UK education system.

After seemingly ignoring the needs of industry when it decided to downgrade the value of the Engineering Diploma from five GCSEs to one, the Government now says it wants to engage with business and get them more involved in college curricula.

The Government’s new skills strategy, Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills, sets out a £214m investment plan for 47 colleges across the UK. It includes stronger action to support the majority of good and outstanding colleges, and new powers to intervene where colleges are failing. The essence of the paper is to give employers more power in determining the skills people have.

Andrew Esson, managing director of Quick Hydraulics, an engineering firm that employs 25 staff including four apprentices, said that many small businesses would be encouraged to hire more apprentices if it was made “easier to identify who are the good training providers to work with”.

However Mr Esson, who runs the North East EEF Skills Group, says that frequently the vast majority of an apprentice’s learning is completed on-site. This is because the skills requirements of a business are often specifically focused on a particular discipline, such as hydraulic or composite materials engineering, which is often not easily available through a training provider.

Referencing suggestions from the Richard Review, the new strategy says that training qualifications seeking funding will need to demonstrate “strong employer input”. Exactly how this will work on the ground has yet to be revealed.

Earlier this year Semta chief executive Sarah Sillars said there were still only 18% of employers in the manufacturing sector who offer apprenticeships. Esson said this “major issue” may be further exacerbated if the extra workload in trying to make education employer-led meant it further discouraged small companies from hiring apprentices at all.

“Any move towards giving the employer ownership for designing the course the training provider puts them through is actually going to make it less likely for companies that don’t currently recruit and train apprentices to do so in the future. It is more likely to support their current position that it is too complex and that they can’t be bothered with the extra work.”

Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills policy, welcomed the skills strategy but said this was part of a continuing debate that needed more detail for firms such as Quick Hydraulics. “At the moment many small companies, including our members, do not qualify for the government’s skills framework and can’t get the funding. The best outcome may be some combination of the EOP [Employer Ownership of Skills Pilot] and giving smaller businesses more access to funding to make skills provision truly more employer-led.”

Mr Carberry recognised that the Employer Ownership of Skills Pilot is not suitable for all small companies, who don’t qualify for the £250,000 minimum government subsidy, but advocated that such companies form ‘clusters’ with their supply chain to make a collaborative bid for EOP funding.

There is a fine line between the added benefits that may be possible through the provision of employer-led skills and adding unsustainable levels of burden on employers, especially small companies. If the costs and bureaucracy shouldered by the SME are not considered, the small business apprenticeship may end up six feet under.

Do you think the skills strategy is joined up and that Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills is the right step towards better, more employer-led skills provision? Have your say at