Sector skills councils are failing to meet key targets

If sector skills councils are to succeed in their mission to help train the nation and meet demands in the Leitch Report, they will need help from employers and learning and development professionals – and soon.

Sector skills councils (SSCs) need to up their game if they are to fulfil the important role set out for them in last December’s Leitch Review of Skills.

Commissioned by then chancellor Gordon Brown, Lord Leitch’s report Prosperity for all in the Global Economy: World Class Skills, examined the UK’s long-term skills needs and proposed an employer-centric agenda for addressing all shortages by 2020.

Its recommendations included: launching a pledge for employers to voluntarily train eligible staff up to Level 2 (equal to 5 GCSEs at grades A to C) by 2010 increasing employer investment in higher level qualifications, especially apprenticeships and at degree and postgraduate levels increasing employer engagement and investment in skills and reforming, and empowering SSCs to simplify and approve vocational training.

Sector skills agreements

Over the past year or so, all 25 SSCs within the Sector Skills Development Agency’s (SSDA) employer-led Skills for Business network have been working on sector skills agreements (SSAs). These are plans designed to ensure the needs of employers form the basis of future education and training.

But while the government sees closer ties with employers as the way forward, research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reveals the feeling isn’t entirely mutual.

According to the latest Labour Market Outlook, conducted by the CIPD and research firm KPMG, employers do not hold SSC-led training in particularly high regard. In the survey of 1,000 employers, SSCs scored a penultimate eighth in an assessment of training providers.

But all is not lost: Employers said they would contact SSCs more if they offered increased funding incentives (58%),were more responsive to their needs (51%), and used less red tape in their admin pro­cesses (50%).

“There is no question that SSCs have got to prove themselves in terms of credibility – especially with people who work in training and learning and developmentroles,” says Martyn Sloman, adviser, learning, training anddevelopment at the CIPD.

“Generally, there is a credibility problem with interventions thatare led by government. At the end of the day, training and learning in organisations is a derived or secondary activity, not the purpose of the organisation.

“What we’ve witnessed is a whole plethora of government initiatives that don’t recognise that distinction, have been ill-conceived and don’t work –Individual Learning Accounts being one such example. The [SSC] system will only work effectively if it’s delivered with business imperatives in mind,“ Sloman says.

When it comes to SSC-led training, the reality is that employers often require the carrot of a subsidy before getting involved – especially if they are being asked to pay for transferable skills.

This makes sense, says Geoff Fieldsend, director of workforce development at the SSDA, if training has sector-wide applicability.

“If the training is going to lead to skilling an industry as a whole then I think there is a case for funding. I would like to see HR and learning and developmentprofessionals from employers’ organisations working together with their appropriate SSC and awarding body on an effective basis to see what standards and qualifications are required – looking at individual needs, and also what the sector requires as a whole.”

Sector skills council Construc­tionSkills knows the building sector needs many more skilled staff. And it started this year by calling on employers to take advantage of a subsidised graduate recruitment scheme entitled Inspire Scholarship. It says more than 100 companies have signed up to the programme, which enables employers to select students for professional roles including site managers and quantity surveyors.

ConstructionSkills claims employers can save an average £12,000 per employee by signing up to the scheme.

Lack of work placements

It also estimated that 42% of college-based construction apprentices will fail to achieve full NVQ status due to a lack of work placements.This prompted it to launch a Programme Led Apprenticeship scheme, which will offer 1,000 placements this year, rising to 3,000 in 2008, though the Construction Confederation reckons the industry needs 90,000 new staffa year until2012.

The scheme enables apprentices to spend up to two years on a construction-based college course. During this time, they gain their Intermediate Construction Award and Key Skills Level 1, before completing the practical aspects required to attain NVQ Level 2 through a continuous placement of nine to 12 months with an employer.

“The focus of ConstructionSkills in 2007 is very much about making the business case for, and facilitating, training,” says its chairman Sir Michael Latham. “Increasing employer investment in training is now even more important in light of the Leitch Review of Skills. The ongoing development of our role as an SSC, and our robust SSA system, continue to be a key tool in helping to create a fully-skilled UK construction industry.”

In February, food and drink manufacturer SSC, Improve,unveiled a subsidised training project called Women in Work. It’s designed to address the shortage of female managers in the industry, as well as help plug an anticipated 30,000 vacant management positions by 2014.

Improve is contributing 90% of the cost of completing an introductory certificate in management from the Chartered Management Institute, and currently has funding for another 400 places. The subsidy means that for every employer contribution of £50 per employee, each person receives £500 worth of training. The scheme is open to all levels, especially those looking to make their first move into a management role and will run until the end of the calendar year.

Pathways for learning

This month, Improve launches a £4.4m National Skills Academy (see case study), and in July it will introduce a revised NVQ/SVQ framework called the Competency Matrix, featuring 16 new qualifications. Employers attending the launch event will be given a demonstration of a new electronic tool that Improve plans to put online to help compile the most appropriate pathways for learners.

The National Skills Academy website will also enable employers to see what funding is available for training. According to Paula Widdowson, commercial director at Improve, the SSC is one of the most proactive in the Skills for Business network, with 200 employers already signed up. “We’re launching one of the first four skills academies in the country. We talked to more than 2,000 employers so we’re confident we know what our industry needs.”

Although she acknowledges that Improve is ahead of the SSC pack when it comes to employer relations (Improve is also hosting a skills conference in September), Widdowson claims that some SSC negativity is down to a common misconception with employers about what they do. “We do not train, we match-make,” she says. “We identify what employers need and put them in touch with organisations that can assist them.”

Health industry SSC, Skills for Health, is also concentrating on its SSAs within 2007. The SSA for Health aims to pinpoint and prioritise future skills andneeds.

During 2007, the SSDA will also be working on regional plans.This will include offering learning and developmentpractitioners access to National Workforce Competences and National Occupational Standards frameworks, devised by Skills for Health.

by Nadia Damon

Food for thought

The National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing is due to launch this month. The result of a two-year joint project between the sector’s SSC, Improve, and employers such as Big Bear, Warburton’s, and Nestlé UK, the academy aims to deliver skills to at least 28,000 people in its first four years.

Most training programmes will be delivered through a network of approved training centres. Funding is currently confined to England, although the academy plans to extend training to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via a network of registered training providers.

About 40 new programmes and units will be available through the new academy.

The first programme on offer is ‘Production management – a lean approach’. This is a bespoke course delivering learning units at NVQ levels 2 and 3. Learners can choose from job-specific units for bakery, meat and poultry, sea-fish processing, or general food manufacturing.

The programme can be taken as a blended e-learning course, with some parts available through the National Skills Academy website. The site will also act as an information point for learners and employers.

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