Skills pledge: Lord Leitch sticks to promise of brighter future

Before Lord Sandy Leitch came on to the scene, ‘the war for talent’ was simply a phrase muttered by battle-weary HR directors during coffee breaks at industry conferences.

Post-Leitch the skills crisis has become one of the most popular subjects of discussion for HR professionals stirring sugar into their black Americanos.

There is no doubt that Leitch’s 2006 report Prosperity for all in the global economy – world class skills has influenced the way we think and talk about skills.

Since his reviewwas published government can talk of little else than a demand-led skills system, one capable of matching what universities and colleges offer to what employers want.

And, thanks to his review, sector skills councils are being re-licensed to better identify training needs in their sectors, the Sector Skills Development Agency has made way for a new Commission for Employment and Skills (CES) – supposedly to “simplify” the skills system – and the government has launched the infamous skills pledge, seeking a commitment from employers to train their staff to Level 2.

Talking about skills

All this talk of skills is exactly what Leitch had intended, he told Personnel Today.

“I still don’t think that everyone understands that the UK has to upskill – whether individuals, employers or trade unions,” he said.

“Part of [the reason for] my study was to get the message out there and get the agenda out there. The report has been very good at this, skills have been talked about all over the place.”

But a worrying report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development last month showed that despite all the talk, just 13% of employers had actually signed the skills pledge.

What’s more, a little under half of the organisations surveyed by the CIPD said the skills agenda had influenced their learning and development work practically.

Not a bad start

Leitch is not concerned by these results.

“The skills pledge has already covered three million employees that’s not a bad start,” he said. “Another study said 60% of employers were receptive towards [signing it]. I don’t know if it’s a case that we haven’t got to those other employers yet, I think it’s more of a timing problem than a resistance problem.”

However, Leitch conceded that the pledge and associated training was a huge cultural change for many employers who had not yet recognised the value of learning.

A leading businessman in his own right, he said he had seen many examples of employers failing to see the bigger picture.

“It’s often the case that someone in a basic job is doing that job adequately but doesn’t have life skills of numeracy and literacy,” he said. “If they had those skills, they could do their job better, but that’s not always on the radar screen of an employer.”

Just five years ago, Leitch ran the UK division of Europe’s third-largest insurance company, Zurich Insurance. He has extensive experience as a chairman, holding the post at medical firm Bupa, Dunbar Bank and insurance company Scottish Widows, and has held positions on plc boards spanning several countries. He also remains non-executive director at publisher United Business Media and bank Lloyds TSB.

He says this breadth of experience justifies his opinion that employers should get involved in training employees to Level 2 numeracy and maths skills. Especially as under the skills pledge, the government pays for this training if the employer gives the worker time off to take it.

Government funding

“I think it’s great that the state pays for this,” Leitch said.

But it’s not all about Level 2. Leitch is pleased to see progress from the government in offering more apprenticeships and encouraging companies to offer more vocational courses.

“Learning beyond Level 2 is very much on the government’s agenda,” he said.

Monitoring

Leitch is looking to the CES to monitor progress on the UK achieving a top class skills base capable of competing with emerging economies like India and China.

“The CES has got itself up and running with a superb chairman [BT chairman Sir Michael Rake] and a very effective chief executive [former government advisor Chris Humphries]. The first item on the Commission’s draft agenda is to assess progress towards making the UK a world class leader in employment and skills by 2020, and that’s fantastic.”

However, Leitch warned it was still “too early to tell” whether this assessment would see the skills pledge made mandatory. A further review of skills progress will be carried out by the government in 2010, he said.

Until then, the skills supremo places wholehearted trust in HR to lead his important mission.

“The profession has people who are proactive, completely in tune with business objectives, and can influence the agenda on people development and succession,” he said.

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