Better late than never?

The slow but steady approach of the Sector Skills Development Agency has
come under fire. Elaine Essery asks if the criticism is justified

Two years have passed since the Government decided to shake up the way the
UK handles sector skills issues. It aimed to replace the disparate, unwieldy –
yet in many cases effective – collection of 70-plus National Training
Organisations with a smaller, better-resourced and, above all, employer-driven
network which would have real clout.

An ambitious timetable was set for a project to create a rationalised
network of Sector Skills Councils, overseen by a new entity – the Sector Skills
Development Agency. If one message was clear it was that SSCs must not be a
rehash of what went before. A step change, founded on quality and fitness for
purpose, was required.

NTOs ceased to be recognised in March 2002. Five trailblazer SSCs were
appointed to lead the development of the new network but, as yet, no mainstream
SSCs have been licensed. The timetable has slipped. Understandably, there is an
undercurrent of frustration and mounting criticism that things are moving too
slowly. But how justified is it?

Progress

Ivan Lewis, Adult Learning and Skills Minister, rejects the view that
progress is slow. "It is imperative to get the quality right and put the
foundations in place," he says. "I accept the genuine and legitimate
concerns that because this is a new initiative, some sectors are not covered by
it. I’m as anxious as anybody to get on with it as we can’t afford to leave
sectors not covered by SSCs, but I want to ensure we don’t sacrifice quality
for speed."

If things did get off to a slow start it was, perhaps, because many of the
initial 33 proposals to form SSCs did not meet required standards. Christopher
Duff, SSDA chief executive, said: "Some of the expressions of interest did
need to be clarified, substantiated and taken a lot further than they were.
There has been a lot of work, a lot of fine-tuning of people’s perceptions and
hopes of what is possible."

As part of a campaign to raise awareness that the Agency was open for
business and encourage employer-involvement, press adverts appeared in June
which resulted in more proposals coming through. By the end of September the
number of trailblazers and SSCs approved for development reached 10. Between
them they will cover almost half the UK’s workforce and more approvals are due.

Edward Stanners, chairman of trailblazer Skillfast-UK and director of
clothing manufacturer Berwin & Berwin and Bradford weaver JH Clissold says:
"The SSC movement is now expanding quickly. The lion’s share of UK
employees are represented and it is quite clear that within probably a year or
18 months everyone is going to be represented. I don’t think many people will
slip through the gap."

Lewis wants to see 100 per cent of employment sectors covered by SSCs.
"But it depends on employers’ commitment and understanding that it is in
their hard-edged interests to invest in skills," he says.

That up to 50 per cent of the workforce will soon be covered by SSCs
indicates employers are enthusiastic, believing for the first time that the
rhetoric of employers being in the driving seat was matched with reality in
SSCs, the minister claims. But he admits: "There are some sectors which
will always lag, which always bemoan the fact that they don’t have adequate
skills, yet are not good at getting their act together."

And there are those who feel that the Government and its new agency have not
got their act together yet. Joan Munro, development director of the Employers
Organisation for Local Government, believes there are problems in the public
sector, where no SSC proposals have been accepted. Her organisation put in a
bid in April but was unable to convince the SSDA that there is a body of skills
needed by local government employees outside their occupational skills.

"Looking through the SSC criteria, we believe we meet them all. We’ve
got all the government employer bodies lined up wanting to do this and several
million pounds put aside to set it up. And we’ve got skills needs," says
Munro. "Our bid was knocked back because they thought other SSCs would
cover local government but if SSCs are supposed to be employer-led we are the
employers," she adds. She refutes the minister’s claim, saying:
"There seems to us to be a gap between the rhetoric and the
practice."

Munro is frustrated that the issue is taking so long to resolve. "Each
time we meet the SSDA they are very friendly and keen to help. They say they
need to get their heads round this. But meanwhile it seems the opposite of what
they wanted is being achieved because we’re doing everything on a short-term
basis, as we don’t know our status. It would be more painless if they just said
‘ no, we’re not interested, go away’, and we could go on and do other
things."

John Bambery is managing director of Lancastrian Labels & Print and
chairman of the former Print & Graphic Communication NTO. His organisation
put in a bid to become a trailblazer and subsequently worked together with the
former NTO for photo-imaging to submit an SSC proposal. "That’s been put
on the back-burner because they say our footprint is not big enough – we don’t
have enough employees," he says.

Bambery disputes the figures which consultants have supplied and adds:
"We had a meeting with the SSDA to try and throw some light on the
subject, but we can’t get a handle on what the minimum number of employees is –
no-one will commit themselves. It’s an absolute nightmare."

The fact is, it is not a numbers game. And it’s not a case of former NTOs or
groups of former NTOs making a straightforward transition to become SSCs.

Duff explains: "An organisation may have been an excellent NTO and be
doing lots of good things for its sector, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s an
SSC. There is a need to look past old structures, test out and see whether
there are fresh approaches – it is a very different vision." Duff will not
be pinned down on the number of SSCs the network will ultimately comprise,
saying: "It would be wrong to prejudge the outcome. We have got to use our
judgement as we go through and respond to what employers are telling us, as
well as respond to skills issues as we understand them better and better in
this process."

While former NTOs who have not made the transition feel aggrieved and left
in limbo, others are positive about the way things are going. The body
representing the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism sectors submitted its
expression of interest in July, was asked for more information, and approved
within six weeks.

Declan Swan, chief executive elect of the aspirant SSC, sees major
differences between NTOs and SSCs. "NTOs represented employers, SSCs are
employers," he says. "Our employers from industries as diverse as
betting casinos, travel firms and hotels, got together and wrote the expression
of interest. If they didn’t actually write it and couldn’t see their words on
the page there would be a credibility issue. Employers know exactly what they
need – my job is to facilitate the process."

Swan is negotiating a development contract which he expects to run the full
six months. "The one thing I’m not going to do is rush it. Employers want
to get this right and not take the easy option.

"I hope the SSDA isn’t going to make things too easy. It’s got to be a
challenge and they’ve got to make it suitably rigorous."

Rigour is something the SSDA will not shy away from. There appears to be a
genuine passion and commitment to get things right, coupled with a realisation
that there is still much work to be done. What the SSDA has achieved it has
done with just seven permanent staff plus secondees from government
departments, the devolved administrations and the former NTO network.

"Over the next couple of months we’ll see our team finalised and look
forward to a big increase in our work rate and a big increase in our
effectiveness as an agency going forward," Duff promises.

Timetable slippage

Plan: November 2001 – six trailblazer SSCs to be announced

Actual: Five trailblazers announced from February 2002 – the
fifth formally launched October 2002

Plan: April 2002 – SSDA fully operational

Actual: April 2002 – SSDA comes into being. September 2002 –
SSDA officially takes over responsibility from the DfES but full staff
complement is not yet in place

Plan: April 2002 – contracting for mainstream SSC development
completed

Actual: June 2002 – advertising campaign launched inviting
expressions of interest from employers to form SSCs. July 2002 – first SSC
proposal accepted for development. August 2002 – first development contract
issued. September 2002 – four more bodies approved to enter SSC development
phase

Plan: August 2002 – exceptional funding to continue essential
NTO work ceases. SSDA takes responsibility for sectors not covered by an SSC

Actual: October 2002 – no mainstream SSCs in existence. SSDA
grants £3 million funding (largely to former NTOs) for 120 projects to ensure
essential sector work continues

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