Sector skills councils: Can do better

Sector skills councils are tasked with improving the nation’s skills base. Yet, many of them struggle to make the grade themselves.

Skills development has been a major feature of government policy before and after the 2006 Leitch Review highlighted the UK’s need for a skilled workforce to compete on the global stage.

The government’s response to this stark warning was a commitment to make the UK a skills leader by 2020 and the introduction of an employer-led approach to training through the sector skills councils (SSCs). The system is now well-established with 25 SSCs serving individual sectors in everything from financial services to manufacturing, and covering roughly 90% of the UK workforce.

Mixed bag

Despite this, the rates of success are mixed, with Lord Leitch himself estimating that one-third of SSCs are doing well, one-third doing badly, and one-third uncertain. And other elements of the government’s skills initiatives, such as skills brokers and Train to Gain, have also been criticised for underperforming.

SSC funding and employer commitment have been questioned, and the government has created the Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) to manage the SSCs and ensure Leitch’s original plans are followed – and will also replace the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

The SSCs were set up to tackle skills shortages, drive-up productivity, improve public service performance, increase skills development opportunities and improve learning supply. With such tough targets it’s no wonder many were deemed by Leitch to be underperforming.

David Coats, associate director at The Work Foundation, thinks the SSCs are facing a wide range of challenges, not least in engaging with employers more effectively. “It’s too soon to say whether the SSCs are delivering, but it’s going to be a big ask to even achieve the minimum requirement because it’s such a big undertaking.

“The key challenges will be around the qualifications framework and in raising the demand for high skills,” he says.

Be creative

However, Coats argues that employers need to get far more involved to make the overall system work by thinking more creatively about skills and their own needs.

“It’s not always clear that employers even know what they want – making it hard for the SSCs to deliver. There has to be a single story that the SSCs and the employers in each sector embrace,” he adds.

Sarah Van Der Heyden, policy adviser at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, says that many employers think the current system is too bureaucratic and inconsistent.

“While our members agree that skills are a priority, they don’t feel the SSCs operate in a way that delivers their needs. It’s felt that too many of them perform averagely or poorly. Even Lord Leitch said performances varied massively from one council to the next,” she explains.

Under review

However, she believes the upcoming review by the UKCES, which recently replaced the Sector Skills Development Agency as skills council ring master, could improve matters.

“We would really encourage employers to get into this review and have a major presence. Now is the chance to get the system moving towards employer needs. The voice of training and HR is crucial in getting a skills network that works,” says Van Der Heyden.

The more successful SSCs have helped skills thrive by setting out detailed agreements and strategies.

SkillsActive, the council for sport and leisure employers, will open a skills academy later this year that is expected to train more than 85,000 staff and volunteers in the run up to the 2012 Olympics.

Skills for Health – the SSC for the NHS and healthcare sectors – has established 70 skills agreements across the UK, which set out the relevant strategies for skills in various parts of the sector.

So far it has already created a qualifications strategy, established a career framework, built closer working relationships with education funding bodies, and provided better skills to a host of workers in the sector.

Build partnerships

Skills for Health chief executive John Rogers says that building partnerships with organisations and other agencies is key to getting resources and delivering better skills.

“These are interesting times because SSCs are still relatively new but have already been coming under a great deal of scrutiny. The sectoral approach has been very successful and I think we’ve seen some real results,” he adds.

Rogers says that SSCs need to identify the needs of employers and staff across the whole of each sector, making high skills available to all.

“In our sector, 60% of the workforce is probably among the best trained people in the world but the other 40% receive an average of just two days training a year. We need to make sure everyone has access to better skills development,” he says.

Case study: Improve

Improve – the SSC for the food and drink sector – has reformed the qualifications framework for people joining the workforce, by revamping the sector’s NVQs, VLQs and apprenticeships to make sure they deliver the skills that food and drink employers need.

A food and drink apprenticeship has now been rolled out across the whole of the UK, replacing many different apprenticeships and providing a single, flexible framework for staff entering the sector.

Improve believes the new framework will not only drive up skills but also attract more than 2,000 new recruits by 2012, helping to plug gaps in the sector’s labour market.

Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve, says reforming qualifications will prove crucial in the future of the whole sector.

“We have worked with employers across the UK to revamp the apprenticeship programme. Since Improve took over responsibility, apprentice numbers have been on the rise, with successful completions doubling in the past two years.”

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