Do academies fit the bill in Edinburgh’s skills crisis?

Almost two years have passed since the launch of Scottish Enterprise’s Employment Academies Initiative. But has it helped to fill the skills gap?


Fed up with spending a small fortune on recruitment agencies and advertising only to find there are no suitably trained personnel to fill the job? Well, many employers in Edinburgh feel the same way.


The city’s service industry has to recruit in a fiercely competitive job market, with low-level job vacancies being rapidly filled by rival employers. This has led to the introduction of so-called ’employment academies’.


Launched in May 2002, the academies were set up to address the recruitment problems by providing employers with a ready-trained pool of skilled labour, while giving the unemployed a guaranteed job interview.


The academies are designed to provide employers with junior level or blue-collar staff across seven industry sectors. These include healthcare, retail, finance, construction, tourism and hospitality, cultural and care, together with a public services academy.


Funding for the scheme comes primarily from the Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian (SEEL), and Jobcentre Plus, while a small proportion of finance is sourced through the European Social Fund. Core objectives of the scheme are to provide employers with job-ready employees, reduce the number of unemployed people in Edinburgh, and deliver a brokerage service between clients, trainers and employers. The academies are aimed at all employers in the Edinburgh Travel to Work Area (TTWA), regardless of their size or number of employees.


According to Pete Selman of SEEL, unemployment in Edinburgh has been hovering around 3 per cent for the past decade – a figure he believes has led to a skills shortage, predominantly throughout the city’s service industries.


But while 3 per cent may seem like low unemployment, consider the real statistics: some 7,500 people in Edinburgh and the Lothians receive jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), and a further 35,000 draw inactive benefits, such as disability allowance.


“The academies are far from just another government scheme aimed at massaging unemployment figures,” explains Selman. “One of the main aims of the initiative is to enlarge Edinburgh’s labour pool by targeting the unemployed and matching their job potential with hard-to-fill vacancies.”


Selman adds that the current recruitment problem in Edinburgh is causing some employers to spend tens of thousands of pounds on agencies and advertising fees to find skilled personnel. While recruitment fees are factored into most employers’ budgets, he believes many firms discount the hidden costs, such as extra staff time and administration.


Using the academies, HR professionals have the opportunity to recruit people who have undergone ‘pre-employment’ training, typically to pre-Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ) level, which is achieved through three to eight-week courses. Training, which is tailored to a precise job role, is carried out by a range of providers, such as colleges, and government-funded organisations including Worktrack. Academy entrants comprise the short and long-term unemployed from a wide variety of backgrounds who, in addition to Worktrack, are selected from intermediaries, including Jobcentre Plus and West Edinburgh Action.


All training courses are public sector funded, although there are plans for employers to make small contributions, which will vary according to the length and nature of the course concerned and the size of the employer.


“Applicants are vetted very carefully by the intermediaries to ensure they have the right aptitude to pursue the course and be ready for employment,” Selman says. “No applicants are offered to employers unless the intermediaries are absolutely sure he or she is trained to a satisfactory standard.”


With recruitment being ‘demand-led’, the employer is under no obligation to offer the candidate a job and, once employment commences, the employee is taken on under the same terms as those recruited by conventional methods. Once employed, the new member of staff receives mentoring and is eligible for on-going training that, in most cases, is funded by the employer.


Flexible pool of workers


For HR professionals, the advantage of a demand led system is having the ability to recruit on an ‘ad-lib’ basis according to staffing requirements. A case in point is civil engineering companies, which may need to recruit more workers through the construction academy to meet their extra labour needs. In this situation, Selman says the academies can adopt the role of a recruitment agency, providing a flexible pool of workers or, alternatively, retrain existing workers who maybe seeking new jobs. To limit competition throughout employers, individuals are trained in groups of 15 and have the freedom to pick and choose where they work.


The academies also provide employment flexibility in other ways. In the event a candidate decides their chosen career path is unsuitable, there is the possibility to switch to another training course. And, providing the job role is not too specific, candidates have the opportunity to move into new sectors once they are trained, according to SEEL. For example, sectors in which certain job roles overlap, such as clerical workers employed in the retail and healthcare industries.


SEEL also promotes the scheme as one that provides employees with life-long learning opportunities, with the job perceived as a career and not a ‘subsistence vocation’.


On such a basis, the academies are not just about finding jobs for the out of work, but aim to retrain employed people so they can take on a new career and, potentially, increase their earning capacity. Where retraining is required, particularly in the finance and retail sectors, SEEL expects the employer to make a contribution to the courses, enabling the scheme to become more viable.


One employer taking full advantage of the scheme under the healthcare academy is the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE), which experienced considerable recruitment problems when it opened in January 2002.


The recruitment problems became so acute that the RIE had to take drastic action, such as cancelling operations due to lack of staff. As a consequence, the hospital became the second highest payer of recruitment agency fees in Edinburgh, according to SEEL.


Alan Penman, RIE’s personnel director, says: “Before we used the academy, it used to cost £500 to recruit a new junior member of staff, taking into account advertising fees and time commitment from two HR staff.”


To date, the hospital has filled 62 jobs through the academy – the majority of which have included clinical support workers, in addition to those employed in administration duties. Staff retention levels are claimed to be up to 90 per cent, compared with 60 per cent when candidates were sourced through agencies and advertising.


The key to higher retention levels, says Penman, is down to an eight-week training course, which comprises two-thirds theory and a practical module. Funded by the NHS, the courses cost £1,000 per person and, once in work, staff have the opportunity to obtain a SVQ level two and three. Employees then have a chance to pursue a Higher National Certificate (HNC) course and, ultimately, nurse training.


“We have experienced a negligible drop-out rate because trainees now have a good insight into their chosen career paths by attending work-based training courses,” adds Penman. “If a new employee decides the job role is unsuitable, he or she has the choice to work in a different department, where on-going training can progress.”


With the scheme up to speed, Penman predicts the healthcare academy will have the capacity to recruit up to 200 personnel a year, employed throughout all departments of the RIE.


But while the academies have brought benefits to HR professionals, some employers have their reservations about using the scheme.


Lyn Ferguson, personnel director of fashion retailer, Schuh, used the retail academy to recruit two sales advisers, who have since left the outlet. “One of the sales advisers showed very good aptitude for his job, but unfortunately his employment with us fell through,” she says.


“While the academy is useful for giving someone a job, there is still a risk when recruiting someone who has had little experience in the retail sector.”


Extending the catchment


Ferguson adds there are many candidates with a wealth of experience to choose from in Edinburgh. And, like all personnel directors, Ferguson is obliged to recruit the best person for the job outside of the academy to maintain Schuh’s customer service standards.


Nevertheless, SEEL is adamant its academies will continue to grow from strength to strength to help address skills shortages throughout the city. The academies have provided Edinburgh’s employers with more than 200 staff during the scheme’s first year – a number expected to double by the end of 2004.


In the near future, SEEL intends to roll out a number of new academies, covering a wider range of industry sectors. The organisation also aims to extend the catchment area of the academies, giving small to medium-size enterprises in rural areas the chance to take full advantage of the scheme.


www.scottish-enterprise.com


Recruitment academy contacts
Healthcare 0131 537 6126
Retail 0131 529 3106
Construction 0131 529 3211
Tourism and Hospitality 0131 315 7709
Finance 0131 625 9510


Learning points for HR




  • Academies help cut recruitment costs

  • Their courses lead to higher staff retention

  • Academies provide ready trained personnel

  • There is no obligation to employ

  • Academies can help employers develop a flexible workforce

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