My move from the commercial world of BAE Systems to the world of vocational e-learning, e-services and advice is proving to be a fascinating challenge. I took on the role of chief executive at Ufi, the company behind learndirect and UK online centres, in January this year, and there is greater parity between the two worlds than you might think.
This sector, like defence, is hugely competitive, with a great deal to achieve within growing funding constraints.
One of my first priorities at Ufi has been working with the board and senior colleagues to shape Ufi’s strategic vision for the next five years. The changes it encompasses are driven by the demands of government, industry and the consumer. In positioning the company to meet these demands, our focus must increasingly be on reaching out to adults whose skills and qualifications do not equip them effectively for the world of work.
As a manager in industry for 14 years, I have direct experience of the impact of the skills deficit on businesses today. Every sector relies on its people. A business may limp along with people whose skills development needs are not identified and addressed, but it cannot thrive long-term.
Investing in skills, especially the literacy, numeracy and ICT skills that form the bedrock of almost all jobs today, should be a matter of course for everyone with responsibility for managing people. At Ufi, I have the opportunity to make that philosophy a possibility.
We need to influence employers’ attitudes towards training, and communicate to individuals the link between learning, qualifications and career success. Skills development is often given a low priority by businesses, or seen as an idealistic add-on for companies that want to create a healthier culture. It is not always viewed as a solid strategy for growth that can influence their bottom line.
The key to our offer is the ability to personalise learning for individuals and tailor training solutions to suit businesses. That agility and flexibility are attributes that Ufi increasingly needs to demonstrate as a business.
The organisation is now nearly six years old, and as it matures, it is becoming more focused. From New Labour’s embryonic idea, the company is becoming an experienced industry contender, with a well-established and reliable infrastructure of 8,000 centres and the well recognised learndirect and UK online centre brands.
I recognise that this strength is the direct result of generous investment and encouragement from the Government, and support from the wider adult skills and education sector. The time is right for the return on their investment to be collected. In the run up to the general election, the government is beginning to lay out its skills strategy for those in work, for those looking for work, and for those seeking career advancement.
These are areas in which Ufi is poised to contribute more.
We are already working to contribute to national targets for engaging learners not qualified to GCSE level. The network of centres overseen by Ufi is working within local communities to reach new and excluded learners, and is becoming a stepping stone for learners to progress to further and higher education.
This existing provision means the systems are in place for us to make contributions beyond our current remit, for example at level 3, level 4 and in the pre-16 sector.
Similarly the independent learndirect advice line and web service has the potential to develop beyond its current sphere of activity and provide a more integrated service covering careers, citizen’s advice and government services.
In industry, I would like to see e-learning embedded in blended training strategies as a first port of call for focused, relevant and timely training.
My message to the government, industry and the learning and skills sector is that Ufi is streamlining itself to respond to them.
My challenge to all of them is to think outside the box, so that Ufi can work with them and its many partners to maximise public investment in a unique national online infrastructure.