Now is the time to invest in skills

HR professionals work under enough pressure as it is. But when an economic slowdown of the sort the world has seen in recent months squeezes profitability, business decisions on recruitment, retention and development become more difficult than ever.

When times get tough, HR policies needn’t just help to mitigate the effects of the problem. They can be part of the solution, too. That was made clear in the open letter that the UK’s five leading employers’ and trade union organisations sent to British business in October.

Their message was simple and compelling: now is the time to invest in skills. All the evidence shows that employers that continue to develop their people when business is slow are more likely not only to survive, but also to be the first to take advantage when markets start to improve again.

The Queen’s Speech earlier this month contained an announcement that should help HR directors and their bosses do just that. The Learning and Skills Council will be replaced by a new body called the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). It is not a new announcement, as the government first unveiled the move back in July 2008. But this is nevertheless a change that’s going to have a direct impact on you and your work.

I know how frustrated many businesses are with all the form-filling and regulation they have to cope with before they can access the training their staff and their businesses need. They have better things to do, especially at times like these.

The SFA will help employers find the training they need and the government funding that can help pay for it. And we’ll make sure that it has an explicit mandate to do this in the least bureaucratic way possible.

It will do it by concentrating on results, not processes, and by listening to what businesses want at national and regional level, not telling them what they ought to need. The new Skills Accounts, which will make funding follow the choices of learners, will make all this easier to achieve.

I want the SFA to be both more strategic and more responsive than the current arrangements. And I want it to have at its disposal powerful tools to help employers. For example, it will host the new National Apprenticeships Service and the Adult Advancement and Careers Service. And it will run the Train to Gain programme that is already putting nearly £1bn a year of funding for staff development at employers’ disposal.

Now is the right time to make this change. It has never been more important that employers continue to invest in the skills that will help them not just to survive the recession, but to emerge more competitive when business picks up again. And it is the government’s job to help put in place the system to support them.

The new agency is part of this and will be accountable to you and your business. So I hope you’ll look out for the details of how it will work, available shortly on the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills website.

by Sion Simon, minister for further education

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