UK skills system: UKCES is rewiring the system to help employers

Type ‘electrician’ into the national database of qualifications and you’ll get a list of 84 accredited qualifications. These are offered by 11 different awarding bodies, in turn drawing from 292 different occupational standards under the heading of ‘electrical trades’. These standards have been developed by 13 different standard-setting bodies or Sector Skills Councils.

So far, so traceable. But then we turn to funding, inspection and auditing; a conservative estimate is of a further 30 organisations involved here. In total, this means potentially more than 50 different bodies to design, fund, assure and develop the competent changing of a light bulb.

As an employer-led organisation, it was no surprise that within the first seven months of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) existence, we published a report on recommendations for fixing some of the most obvious things that irritate employers and deter them from participating in the skills system.

We’re pleased to see there’s been a significant amount of activity in implementing our initial recommendations, and there are signs that some employers can recognise that attempts to simplify the system have been made. However, fixing the presentational aspects – which we have been working on until recently – is relatively easy. You can see the results of some of the commission’s work by visiting, where all the publicly-funded skills and employment initiatives are mapped into a searchable framework.


Now, UKCES has been asked by government to provide recommendations to fundamentally simplify the underlying programmes and structures, ensuring a much more responsive system that integrates employment and skills services – not just by hiding the wiring, but by rewiring the system.

To do this we’ll have to use every ounce of our remit; which is to provide “vigorous and independent challenge at the highest levels of government”. Why? Because if you look at previous attempts to simplify the skills landscape, they often failed to live up to billing because they overly focused on process and lacked external stimulus for achieving real change.

This time the external imperative comes in two forms. First, the commission’s recent report on skills projections to 2020 shows that, despite unprecedented historic investment and improvement in skills, the UK is at risk of falling behind its international competitors on productivity, employment and skills.

Second, the former Department for Innovation Universities and Skills committed to delivering £400m in savings in 2010-11, as part of the government’s £5bn efficiency programme, and we can assume that this is just the start of several years of public spending austerity. Therefore the role of the commission is not to advocate simplification for its own sake but to ask: “How can we achieve more – and better – for less?”.

In an open letter published recently, UKCES is inviting everyone with an interest in employment and skills to contribute to a set of recommendations to government on what needs to be changed in relation to the funding, measurement of outcomes and underpinning structures for publicly-funded employment and skills services.


That change is needed isn’t a matter for debate – pretty much everyone, including politicians of all parties, employers and the ‘skillsocracy’ agree that simplification is needed and long overdue. As ever, the devil will be in the detail – simplification will inevitably involve some difficult messages and some painful decisions.

But UKCES is not simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic here. Because the inconvenient truth is that there just isn’t the money to keep all the deckchairs out. We need to make sure that the considerable sums of money invested in training by government, its agencies, employers and individuals works together to equal more jobs, more skills and greater opportunity and productivity for everyone.

For more information, visit

Michael Davis, director of strategy and performance, UK Commission for Employment and Skills

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