Skills strategy must be translated into practice

Employers have welcomed government moves to address serious skills
shortages. But they want the proposals to be rapidly turned into solutions, to
help boost the UK’s levels of productivity and competitiveness. Michael Millar

Proposals outlined in the Government’s Skills Strategy White Paper, designed
to equip the UK’s workforce with the right skills and boost competitiveness,
have received conditional backing from employers.

The paper, 21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential – Individuals,
Employers, Nation, forms part of the Government’s attempt to combat skills
shortages and increase productivity levels to help it match major competitors.

To date, productivity under Labour has actually dropped. In 2001, output per
hour worked was 25 per cent higher in Germany than in the UK, and 26 and 32 per
cent higher in the US and France respectively.

Employer involvement

An estimated 7.3 million adults in the UK – 30 per cent of the working
population – do not have a Level two (equivalent to five GCSEs) or a comparable
qualification. Almost half the unemployed people in Britain lack any formal qualifications
at all.

To try and address these problems, Education minister Ivan Lewis, outlined a
raft of proposals earlier this month to improve skills. These include plans to
ensure greater employer involvement in the design and delivery of Modern Apprenticeships,
and to lift the age cap so people aged over 25 can learn skilled trades.

He also revealed a proposal to improve and expand the basic skills campaign
to make Information Communication Technology (ICT) the third essential ‘skill
for life’ alongside numeracy and literacy. The Government wants to improve
opportunities for adults to gain qualifications in technician, higher craft and
trade skills where regional or sector skills shortages exist.

Another proposal is to boost adult learning by providing £30 weekly grants
for those studying full-time in further education. The Skills Strategy will
also attempt to reform adult education and careers information services and
make educational qualifications more employer-friendly and relevant.

Underpinning the proposals is the Government’s intention to rapidly expand
the network of Skills Sector Councils (SSC), designed to help employers in
associated industries address skills shortages in a holistic and co-ordinated

Karen Price, CEO of e-skills UK, the SSC set up to help employers in ICT
address skills shortages, welcomed the Government’s plan to put increased
emphasis on ICT education. She claims IT is the literacy of the 21st century,
but that the UK is not exploiting new technology due to shortages in the skills

Price believes providing people with IT skills will also help their literacy
and numeracy, with individuals learning basic skills online if "it means
they can save their pride by saying they are on an IT course rather than a
reading course".

Furthermore, she advocates the use of ‘e-skills passports’, which allow
individuals to assess the skills they have or need against profiles for jobs,
which are preset by employers.

The importance of improved ICT skills was also underlined by Barbara
Greenway, managing director of Parity Training, the UK’s second-largest
supplier of IT training. She said providing additional ICT training was
imperative if employability was to be maintained in Britain and that the
top-down focus from the Government on the issue would make supplying facilities
and accessibility much easier.

Adult apprentices

The Government’s plan to lift the age cap for Modern Apprenticeships (MAs)
so people over 25 can learn skilled trades has been greeted with enthusiasm,
particularly among the beleaguered manufacturing industry.

Sean McIlveen, executive director of employee affairs at car manufacturer
Ford, said this would allow continual professional progress in the sector and
provide ‘development for all’. Ford has taken on adult apprentices for the past
10 years and has seen substantial benefits.

The director of learning and development at Rolls-Royce, Margaret Gildear,
highlighted the importance of SEMTA – the SSC covering science, engineering and
manufacturing technologies – in providing guidance for smaller companies which
lack the strong leadership necessary to make the most of the opportunities
offered by MAs.

Mike Sanderson, CEO at SEMTA, agrees removing the age limit offers a real
opportunity to upskill and reskill staff. However, he expressed doubts about
the importance the Government would place on the development of MAs in the
future. "The plan is resource-constrained and I believe Charles Clarke’s
political survival lies in more traditional education," he said.

The Government’s pledge to make qualifications more employer-friendly and
responsive to business needs is long overdue says Victoria Gill, skills adviser
at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. This will be achieved
through an increased emphasis on vocational qualifications, and by helping
employers package units of training to form the training programme that best
meets their needs.

"This plan will enhance the motivation to learn and for employers to
improve their workforce," she said.

McIlveen is optimistic that the skills strategy will help increase
vocational education’s standing. "We seem to struggle in the UK to see
vocational qualifications in as good a light as academic qualifications,"
he said.

Employers were united in praising the Government for instigating a positive
set of measures to combat the problem. However, they stress the onus is now on
the Government to ensure its skills strategy is translated from a document of
proposals into pragmatic and workable solutions that equip the workforce with
the skills businesses need.

Key reforms

Delivering the right skills for individuals

– Introducing free learning to any adult without a good
foundation of skills for employability, to help them achieve a full Level two
qualification (five GCSEs or equivalent)

– New opportunities for adults to gain qualifications in
technician, higher craft and trade skills through a Level three qualification
(two A-levels or equivalent) in regional or sector skills shortage areas

– Funding a new £30 weekly grant for adult learners in priority
groups to support them in studying full-time courses in further education

– Expanding the Adult Basic Skills campaign to make information
and communications technology the third essential ‘skill for life’ alongside numeracy
and literacy

– Lifting the age cap for Modern Apprenticeships so that people
over 25 can learn skilled trades

– Reforming adult information, advice and guidance services to
help adults into learning, and ensure individuals can find out what to learn,
where to learn and what they are entitled to

Delivering the right skills for employers

– Rapidly expanding the Sector Skills Council (SSC) network to
identify, map and meet key skills needs in employment sectors. The Department
of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills will team up
to help drive the SSCs

– Learning from employer training pilots as a basis for
developing a national programme for employers to deliver training in the way
they want it, particularly for low-skilled employees

– Reforming qualifications to make them more employer-friendly
and responsive to employer needs, by helping employers to package training
units in different areas to form the training programme that best fits their

– Ensuring greater employer involvement in the design and
delivery of Modern Apprenticeships

– Developing business support services so employers know who to
turn to for help on skills

– Publishing an employers’ guide to good training practice, bringing together
clear information on everything employers need to know to improve the skills of
their workforce

– Introducing a new people management and leadership drive,
working with Investors in People

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