Beating the bureaucrats

This month’s NTO conference should provide a platform for tough talking on
employer involvement and red tape.  NTO
national chairman Garry Hawkes gave us a preview

The 2001 Employer Skills Summit and NTO annual conference will give
employers the chance to hear the latest news on the skills debate and influence
government policy.

The event, which takes place on 16 and 17 October, is billed as the largest
gathering of employers, business and unions committed to skills. An impressive
line-up of over 40 speakers will make presentations, run workshops and act as
panellists in a BBC-style Skills Question Time, chaired by TV presenter
Alistair Stewart.

Representatives from the UK’s leading think-tanks will give updates on the
latest research and thinking on skills in sessions chaired by employers where
delegates act as critical analysts, bringing their experience and perspectives
to the ideas presented.

Day two will focus on partnerships and transitions as the new vision for a
stronger sector skills network unfolds. Garry Hawkes, chairman of NTO National
Council, will chair the event, and kicks off proceedings with a keynote address
on Meeting the Real Skills Challenge. His message is clear:
employer-involvement is key.

"We’re always told that skills initiatives should be employer-led. The
reality is that in many cases they are bureaucrat-led," he says.

"We have a situation in Britain where many people are ambivalent.
Employers are significantly involved in the skills debate, but there are many
industries and companies that don’t give it the priority it’s entitled to.

"As an employer myself, I’m very keen for employers to be involved in
the process so they can have ownership of some of the solutions that are going
to be developed in future."

Hawkes detects a strong commitment to sectors and the organisations
representing them which will have sufficient resources and sufficient employer
support and be significantly better funded to take the whole skills agenda
forward. Fitness for purpose will be the key criterion.

Government feedback could not be more positive. In a personal letter to Hawkes,
endorsing next week’s event, Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote, "This
conference is rightly concerned to see the sector dimension better recognised
in the decision-making process. We support and stand ready to make a strong
public investment in sector-based learning and skills organisations. We want to
see a strong sector voice at the heart of government policymaking."

Blair’s words are backed up by the presence at the conference of Estelle
Morris, Secretary of State for Employment and Skills, and John Healey, Minister
for Adult Skills and NTOs. Their keynote addresses are expected to deliver the
long-awaited outcomes of the Building a Stronger Network consultation on the
future of NTOs.

"I think we’re on the brink of something quite significant which will
be detailed on 16 October by Estelle Morris and on 17 October by John Healey.
We shall have a definitive statement as to what the Government’s policy
is," says Hawkes, who is optimistic about the future.

He referred to a private briefing he attended in September, saying,
"What I heard then was the most significant and intelligent review of
sector skills that I’ve heard in 37 years in business. It’s progressive and
builds on the good work of the past – not throwing the baby out with the bath
water.

"The Government is taking a more strategic view and talking about
better-funded processes. We’re at the beginning of something big and it’s based
on employers being involved."

Part of the challenge is for employers to embrace their NTOs and take a
sector- or industry-wide perspective, Hawkes maintains – something he failed to
do during his 20 years as chief executive of Gardner Merchant, he admits.
"I trained to meet the needs of Gardner Merchant and never once involved
myself with a national training organisation. I should have raised my head
above the parapet a bit more to see the wider need," he says.

A major aspect of the challenge to the nation is to ensure that everyone has
appropriate skills at the right level.

While the focus on education and academic achievements excludes half of the
population, the workplace is the best place to reach the majority of those in
employment. It is here that major effort is needed to ensure the UK skills its
people in line with Europe and the rest of the world, if it is to be effective
in what are going to be increasingly difficult economic times.

"It sounds so cliché-ridden and platitudinous and we’ve been saying it
for years, but I think there’s a real chance now to influence the Government to
invest money where appropriate, to influence the out-turns in schools, colleges
and higher education, to influence the whole debate about apprentice training
and workforce development," Hawkes believes.

And that, he says, is what the wealth of information and employer opinion gathered
at the 2001 Employer Skills Summit and NTO conference will contribute towards.
The skills agenda moves forward.

The 2001 Employer Skills Summit and NTO annual conference takes place on
16 and 17 October at the Church House Conference Centre, Westminster. For
details visit www.nto-nc.org

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