Interview with Chis Humphries, chief executive of Commission for Employment and Skills

On being appointed chief executive for the Commission for Employment and Skills (CES) in November, Chris Humphries vowed his team would “give it their best shot” in working with employers to solve the skills crisis.

Over the past 20 years, he has worked as an adviser to the government on a variety of training projects. He was a founding member of the Learning and Skills Council and is also chairman of UK Skills, a not-for-profit organisation that champions skills.

Humphries was awarded the CBE for services to training and enterprise in June 1998, and has been director-general of City & Guilds since 2001.

With these credentials, it’s easy to see why he is 100% convinced the skills gap is one of the most important issues facing the UK.

The challenge, Humphries says, is not simply to raise the skills of our workforce but to make sure businesses in 2020 are operating higher up the value chain: creating businesses that are leading edge, profitable and competitive.

And he is certain that if the UK improves its skills base by 2020, British productivity will win “100 times over”.

Going live

The CES, which is due to launch in April, was one of the chief recommendations of the 2006 Leitch Review, which warned that the UK should increase the skills of its workforce or face a bleak future, being unable to compete with emerging economies such as India and China.

The body will advise ministers on skills strategy and policies, but will also challenge the government to improve the current skills system, which includes 25 Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) and initiatives such as Train to Gain and the skills pledge.

“Employers constantly tell me that the system is too complex. They are nervous about signing up to this stuff but the system doesn’t have to be like that,” Humphries tells Personnel Today.

“An early focus of the Commission will be: how can we simplify the skills system for employers, how can we convince them they will not wind up in bureaucracy?”

The Commission intends to propose constructive ideas for improvements – based on research, consultation with employers, and the constant monitoring of change and progress – to the government each year.

“The Commission has a true UK-wide remit to bring together employer services and make the system more employer-led in a joined-up fashion,” says Humphries.

“The ball has now been thrown back to the supply side to make this happen, and to get its act together. The Commission has a powerful role, charged by the government to look at the behaviour of the system.”

The chief executive says he will look to his commissioners to lead the way on this agenda, as they will remain accountable to employers.

2020 vision

Humphries has a “genuine, passionate” belief, and long experience working in enterprise development and skills. Born in Australia, he moved to England in 1974, and declares that most of his working life has been dedicated to improving skills, and trying to get the UK government to take the challenge seriously.

He is well aware of the benefits of creating a system that will deliver Leitch’s goals.

“A developed country like the UK has to do two things. First, seek to move its own companies up the value chain, to be better at providing ‘value added’ business. That’s innovation, outstanding customer service, and higher productivity. That will save tens of millions of pounds a year.

“Second, it’s not sufficient just for our companies to compete on today’s business model. It’s the way we use our people’s skills to make sure our businesses remain leading edge. We cannot compete on price alone – we need as highly a talented workforce as we can get.”

The Leitch report outlined how the UK might get there, but it’s not just about 2020. A “progressive improvement” right across the next 12 years is what’s needed.

Getting employers on board

Just 30% of the 2020 working-age population is under the age of 16 today. If the UK is to achieve the ambitions set out by Lord Leitch’s report, Humphries stresses that the responsibility still lies with employers.

“The Commission can’t force companies to up their game, but we can reinforce messages to businesses to help them do that.”

He warns the UK cannot simply wait for changes to education in schools and universities to lead to a higher-skilled workforce, and that the workforce already in place needs to be ‘targeted’.

“We have very high-profile leaders on the Commission, from a mix of private, voluntary and public sectors, which signals the commitment from employers,” he adds.


One of the Commission’s first tasks will be to lead the reform and re-licensing of the network of 25 SSCs.

At present, the Sector Skills Development Agency helps build the capacity and improves the performance of the councils. However, from April, the SSCs will be entirely self-supporting. They will be completely independent from the Commission, except for its regulatory and re-licensing role.

The idea is to give the SSCs a new remit to help employers raise ambition and investment in skills, articulate the future skill needs of their sector and ensure the supply of skills and qualifications is driven by employers.

Humphries says: “We’ve got to ensure SSCs can provide an effective voice for each sector. We will performance manage the councils, but their accountability will be to the employers in their industries.”

He tells Personnel Today that he does not yet know whether all 25 SSCs will remain in tact, confirming that “no-one is saying there has to be the same number of councils in a year’s time”.

The CES will also have a major say on whether employers should be forced to allow time off for staff to study to Level 2.

Leitch warned that if too few employers had shown commitment to training staff to Level 2 by 2010, the Commission would recommend that the government should introduce compulsory training for all firms.

During 2008, the Commission will set out how it will approach the issue, building up to a major review in 2010.

Humphries says engineering and manufacturing skills shortages will be given early focus, as skills gaps in these sectors have huge knock-on effects for the rest of the economy.

Yet he remains confident that he can help the UK economy get back on track.

“I have a genuine belief that it’s the power of people that enables businesses to succeed,” he says. “Much of the progress on competitiveness will result from getting that focus right.”

CV: Chris Humphries

  • 2006 – to date, chairman, WorldSkills 2011 Partnership Board, which runs the Skills Olympics
  • 2002 – to date, chairman, UK Skills, which champions skills
  • 2001 – to date, director-general, training provider City & Guilds
  • -1998 – 2001, director-general, British Chambers of Commerce
  • 1998 – 2000, chairman, National Skills Task Force, the government group to increase availability of work-based learning for adults
  • 1994 – 1998, chief executive, TEC National Council (governing body of local business group working to maximise skills of workforce)
  • 1991 – 1994, chief executive, Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council (TEC)

Leitch Review: aims for 2020

  • 95% of adults to have the basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy, up from 85% literacy and 79% numeracy in 2005
  • More than 90% of adults to have gained at least a Level 2 qualification, up from 69% in 2005
  • More than 40% of all adults to have qualifications at Level 4 and above, up from 29% in 2005
  • Shifting the balance of intermediate skills from Level 2 to Level 3 and improving the esteem, quantity and quality of intermediate skills.

Source: Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

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