Skills pioneers forge ahead

The ink has just dried on the licence for five model Sector Skills
Councils.  Elaine Essery assesses their
potential impact

The trailblazing Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) that will pioneer the new SSC
network received their licences from adult skills minister, John Healey last
month.

The five councils, which were announced in December, were chosen after 31
expressions of interest had been received from would-be participants. The
pioneers, which met the extremely tough criteria, will cover: land-based
industries; audiovisual industries; apparel, footwear and textiles; retail; oil
and gas extraction, petroleum refining/distribution and chemical manufacture.
Not only do they represent a cross-section of the sectors which may be included
in the future SSC network, but they also provide models for different types of
bodies. Two are based on single NTOs, two on new groupings of NTOs and one –
retail – represents a sector which did not have its own NTO.

The vanguard has been working with officials from the DfES and the devolved
administrations to determine how the SSC network will work as an integral
partner with agencies including RDAs, LSCs and the Small Business Service in
England and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland. They have also been
meeting to discuss policy issues. Among the new challenges is how to arrive at
performance measures by which SSCs will be judged on the achievement of
workforce development plans – the Government will need to be flexible in
allowing targets that make sense to sector employers.

Dinah Caine, chief executive of the audiovisual SSC, Skillset, is excited
and encouraged by the Government’s desire to work actively with sectors.

"Industry is the biggest investor in skills post-16 so it makes sense
to be working in partnership with public agencies to maximise the way in which
we match industry investment with public investment," she says.

"There’s a burden of responsibility to ensure that what we’re
discussing helps pave the way for the rest of the network. We’re eager to see
the rest of the network in place as we’ll all be wanting to co-ordinate efforts
and share models of good practice."

John Ramsay, chief executive of Cogent the petrochemicals SSC, regards
trailblazer status as recognition of the innovative proposal put forward for
bringing together three significant industries in the UK.

"I don’t see it as a merger, but as a new organisation built on the
resources of existing NTOs," he says. "It’s a new proposition with a
vision and strategy different from NTOs and is looking to work in a different
way. We have an opportunity to review the way we work with employers, to
demonstrate the contribution that skills and training and development can make
to business performance, and to have an impact. The main difference we can make
as an SSC is that we can really become the voice of employers. There’s no doubt
that an additional injection of funding by Government will help SSCs lever
increased capability."

Reputations

Ramsay is concerned not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however.
The new organisation must continue to engage with employers in delivering the
services that they have come to value, he insists, and maintain the reputation
that all three NTOs have been able to build with employers. Caine is equally
anxious that, across all sectors, the SSDA properly addresses issues around
coverage and managing the transition from NTOs to SSCs.

Skillset’s main priority for its own sector is to tie skills and
productivity firmly together. The senior employers and unions which form its
training group, have already helped formulate Skillset’s strategic agenda and
it will be looking to implement and build on that.

Caine believes the key elements will be similar across different sectors: to
build on the research base provided by Skills Foresight and labour market
information; to build on careers advice and guidance; and to address
sector-specific issues around investment in skills.

Ramsay sets out three priorities for his organisation:

– at sector level, to provide leadership on the contribution skills can make
to business improvement

– at the individual business level, to act as a partner and provider of
tailor-made solutions

– at an individual level, to advise and help existing employees and those
thinking of entering the industry identify the skills and knowledge they will
need to market themselves now and in the future.

It will also seek to highlight to the Government one of the root causes of
skills gaps and shortages in its sector. "The three industries we’re
bringing together to create the SSC are all dependent on engineering, science
and technology skills and the focus tends not to be on these in secondary and
higher education, so it’s a big issue for us."

Caine and Ramsay agree that the power to influence is the key attraction for
employers. To that end, Caine is conscious of Skillset’s dual role. "On
the one hand we’re representing our own sector but as a trailblazer we’re also
having to outline what the issues are for SSCs generally," she says.

"A lot of our time is being put into policy development which has taken
us away from industry-specific issues to an extent. That’s why the influence
issue is so important to us. Having put that effort in, it’s got to come good
so we can go back to our sector and say: the time was well spent. I feel
confident this is a new era and that there are plenty of opportunities."

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