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Terry Watts

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Opinion: What will the skills strategy really mean for business?

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Terry Watts, CEO of Proskills, the Sector Skills Council (SSC) for process and manufacturing, comments on the new skills strategy and explains what this really means for businesses and the future of skills in our workforce.

The government’s new skills strategy, ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’ paints a very colourful picture for the future of skills within the UK, but if we look a little deeper at what the changes will actually mean to businesses, the cracks in Vince Cable’s work of art become all too visible. Understandable given the compromises needed in these austere times but the devil is always in the detail.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) seem to have benefited greatly from the new skills strategy, and rightly so but is it is not the case that the focus has been shifted towards SMEs and taken away from larger businesses? The successor to the abolished Train to Gain scheme simply makes it harder for larger businesses to get funding to train their staff by tightening up the criteria for eligibility. The reasonable aim here is to ensure that public investment creates new training rather than fund what would have happened anyway.

The government will still fully fund all learners between the ages of 19 and 24 for their first level 1 and 2 qualifications (level 2 is equivalent to five GCSEs at A-C), which is good news as it gives all learners the opportunity to gain necessary skills. However funding is not made available to someone who needs to gain a second level 1 or 2 qualification. This will cause problems for employers looking to re-train staff who may have been recruited from other sectors or for higher level skills.

Although the new skills strategy makes it more difficult to get funding for training, action has been taken to protect investment to address these fundamental skills issues. Vince Cable announced that any individuals who left school without basic skills will be fully funded to take basic skills courses – something which is crucial for the overall skills of the UK workforce as one in five people lack these basic skills.

Expanding the number of adult apprenticeships available is another positive move in maintaining a skilled workforce, and one that will be welcomed by employers.
 
Apprenticeships however are only one route to developing skills, and there is a continuing need in our industries for other more flexible provision to help companies and individuals grow through upskilling. It will be the job for all Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) to continue to work with the government and other organisations to represent the skills needs of employers in their sectors to get the flexibilities employers need.

Other big news is the announcement of plans to initiate an employer-led Growth and Innovation Fund of up to £50m of investment a year. This could be fantastic news and I am delighted to hear that the government is starting to recognise the importance of SSCs as the route to employers and just what they can deliver.

SSCs are going to play an important part in securing the future of skills within our workforce. The announcement of the Growth and Innovation Fund will allow SSCs to use this money to build on the success of schemes like the Joint Investment Programme, a programme which is enabling Proskills to deliver more than £7m worth of training at level 3 and 4 (level 3 is equivalent to A levels) to the industries within the process and manufacturing sector.

I would have liked the government to have grasped the opportunity to go further in reforming the complexity of the skills system. But, despite the potential problems I outlined earlier, I believe that there is a real opportunity to change the skills system for the better as the changes are implemented. I am particularly pleased that, at last, SSCs are being given the opportunity to harness the support of employers to get the best possible result for UK industry.

It is the cultural shift towards sectors and away from top-down, provider-led targets that HR professionals should take note of. By working with your SSC and listening to what they have to say, you can really prepare yourself to take full advantage of the new skills policies, find out what funding is available and what help you can get from your SSC, National Skills Academy, and the system as a whole. SSCs are the experts of the industries and should be utilised fully, especially when the budget for skills funding has been tightened and money is hard to come by.

All in all, the new Skills Strategy demonstrates that the government is committed to developing the skills of the UK’s workforce and is moving in the right direction to take account of employer needs. I am pleased to see that SSCs, like Proskills, will continue to have a major role to play in representing the needs of our employers in the future. It will be vital for the government to continue to work with us to ensure that the UK’s employers can have their say on the implementation of the plans outlined.

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