Sector skills network must get all employers involved

Employers already benefiting from Sector Skills Councils are singing their
praises.  However, more work needs to be
done to include all industries in the network. 
By Elaine Essery

The official launch of the Sector Skills Development Agency last month was
supposed to be a landmark in realising the Government’s vision of a strong,
influential sector skills network.

The SSDA’s role is to co-ordinate and administer the Sector Skills Councils,
which took over from the National Training Organisations in April as the new
employer bodies to boost productivity and skills across all of the sectors.

However, the handover has been criticised for not being handled well and
leaving those employers which have not yet been granted SSC status in limbo.

The SSDA is supposed to act as caretaker for those sectors not yet covered.
It has handed out £3m to match funding from the different sectors to ensure
essential work continues, including the development of occupational standards
and qualifications, modern apprenticeship frameworks and labour market
research.

Unsatisfactory

Joan Munro, development director at the Employers Organisation for Local
Government, which had its bid for Sector Skill Council status rejected, finds
this unsatisfactory. She believes that the Local Government National Training
Organisation has been left unable to plan to meet skills shortages in the
sector.

"We produced a workforce development plan a year ago and we are working
to take that forward as best we can, but we’re just getting bits of short-term
funding – a few months at a time," she said. "That is not the way to
run things."

Another problem highlighted by employers is the delays in bids for SSC
status being processed. Many organisations put in bids to form new-style
councils but have been unable to move forward.

The former Print and Graphic Communication NTO submitted its bid but was
given little guidance on when or if it will actually be successful.

Chairman, John Bambery, said: "I’m disgusted at the way things have
been handled. No-one will commit themselves and we’re told the process might
take two years. If the Government were trying to run a business like this, it
would have become bankrupt ages ago."

But SSDA’s chief executive, Christopher Duff, defended the way the SSCs have
been launched and stressed the size of the task undertaken. "I’m not
pretending there isn’t substantial work to do in building the network, or that
it is going to be easy. We aim to work as a hands-on agency at the heart of the
network to make sure there are strong foundations from the beginning. We are
working with 29 sectors, either individually or in combination."

Duff explained that each bid for SSC status has to be treated on its
individual merits.

"Each has its unique set of circumstances but we have acted quickly and
made progress. We have been clear where issues have needed to be addressed. We
have not and will not compromise on the vision for the network," he said.

Duff added it would take time for the new system to be running smoothly, but
he said those employer bodies which have achieved SSC status are already
benefiting.

"There is now more than a core of the Skills for Business network
coming together and soon it can be, and will be, a force to be reckoned
with," he said.

"The trailblazers and the SSCs in formation cover 35 per cent of the
workforce, representing 9.4 million employees and making a £200bn contribution
to the UK economy."

Duff announced last month his board’s decision to approve two further
would-be SSCs for development: the CITB, representing construction, and a
grouping of six sectors to represent process and manufacturing. As a result,
nearly half of the UK’s workforce will potentially be covered by Sector Skills
Councils.

Five initial ‘trailblazer’ SSCs were announced in February this year:
Skillset, representing audio-visual industries; Cogent, for oil and gas
extraction, chemical manufacturing and petroleum industries; Lantra, for
environmental and land-based industries; Skillfast-UK, for apparel, footwear
and textiles, and Skillsmart, which represents the retail sector.

An awareness-raising campaign mounted in June invited expressions of
interest from employers and brought forward more bids to form SSCs.

In July, the body representing technology, engineering and science was the
first to have its proposal approved to develop as an SSC. Its submission will
be judged at the SSDA’s next board meeting. Subject to approval here, by the
devolved administrations and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills,
it will be granted a licence by the end of the year.

Two more bodies – one representing the ICT and call centres sector, the
other hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism – joined the development group
in early September. They will negotiate development contracts lasting up to six
months.

Employers represented by the five trailblazer SSCs are in no doubt that the
new skills network is an improvement on the NTOs.

Peter Meier, head of HR at Channel 4, is pleased with the way things have
gone in his sector, which is represented by Skillset.

"Skillset is leading the way among SSCs in showing how a body can work
and collaborate with the industry it represents. Key to its success has been
employers who from an early stage, had a huge impact on the way Skillset was
run."

However, he does understand the frustrations felt by other industries not
yet represented by an SSC. "If you weren’t chosen, you’re going to be
wondering what’s going to happen and how the sectors are going to be
represented," he said.

More collaboration

Meier has noticed differences in the role of SSCs compared with NTOs.
"I think there is a more collaborative and consultative approach from the
Government and the SSDA towards SSCs, which is a benefit. And there’s probably
more working together of SSCs as they are a smaller network."

Edward Stanners agrees. He is chairman of Skillfast-UK, and director of
Bradford weaving company JH Clissold and clothing manufacturer Berwin &
Berwin. "The SSDA has a very open stance," he said. "It takes
very kindly to constructive comments and criticism and is very user-friendly.
The whole thing is being run in a democratic fashion and I can’t see decisions
being reached without our being consulted. It’s a fair arrangement."

The five trailblazers have been actively encouraged to talk and link into
the other SSCs from day one, Stanners added. "That’s happening in a
structured way, through meetings arranged by the Government and by SSC
colleagues regularly discussing matters where we have common ground. It is
better than the old system where you had a number of disparate NTOs all doing
things slightly differently without a common brief and without a common
voice."

www.SSDA.org.uk

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