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Blueprint for a bridge over the skills gap

Chris Humphries, director-general of City and Guilds, argues for new, flexible qualifications

The Government's forthcoming White Paper on the skills strategy is a commendable and much-welcomed attempt to tackle one of the most pressing time bombs facing UK Plc - the mismatch between skills and labour supply.

Undoubtedly, the scale and severity of this issue cannot be overestimated, as ministers indicate in the consultation document.

The National Skills Taskforce, which I chaired from 1998-2000, pointed out that the youth cohort is shrinking while the number of older people is growing dramatically. Two million jobs will be created by 2010. Even if the workforce grows by 600,000 until then and immigrants account for another 500,000 new jobs, that still leaves more than one million vacancies.

UK Plc needs a workforce that is far more highly-skilled and engaged than it is at present. And by 2010, this will become more pressing as 65 per cent of jobs will require level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualifications. To ensure this happens, there should be greater focus on four key groups - the existing workforce, young people, immigrants and those not in employment - supported by a detailed strategy for targeting them effectively.

First, I firmly believe that young people should be better prepared for work. We must encourage them to achieve a level 3 qualification and provide an entitlement to fully-funded learning for those aged under 30. This is an area in which the UK has been losing ground and we should be seeking to get 90 per cent of those under 30 engaged in level 3 study by 2010.

I would also like to see a broader curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds along the lines of the baccalaureate with more maths and other topics that relate to the workplace, as well as better careers advice.

Second, there is a need to engage with and raise the skills of those adults already in the workplace through large-scale basic skills, key skills and learning campaigns, supported by a comprehensive adult careers advice.

Engagement with this group can only work if it is supported by an employer-led drive. I would like the Government to contemplate a more effective strategy, even semi-statutory changes in the workplace, for engaging employers through incentives and collective action for training.

To reach smaller firms, more use can undoubtedly be made of business advisers and other professionals to demonstrate the direct link between training and skills and better bottom-line benefits. All intermediaries, including banks and accountants, working with small and medium businesses, need to be engaged in this important role.

Third, we anticipate that around 500,000 immigrants will fill new jobs by 2010. Some of these may require qualifications in English as a second language, greater skills or customised training to engage them in valued work and help them to become productive citizens.

But we will not meet forecast growth figures unless we also succeed in engaging with those adults not currently in the workforce. A substantial programme is needed to help this group obtain a foothold in the labour force and to boost their work skills. At the same time, ministers have to persuade this group that it is worthwhile to train and learn by putting in place an effective system that can clearly demonstrate return on investment.

So how does the qualifications framework fit into the Government's skill strategy?

Although existing qualifications cover core requirements fairly well, there is a consensus that employers are looking for greater flexibility. As employers want more multi-tasking and cross-skilling, they demand a greater mix of modules - whether it is information technology, marketing or customer care.

City and Guilds, in partnership with the National Open College Network, is contributing towards the Government's strategy by revising its qualifications framework so that it anticipates changes, is more responsive to employers' needs, minimises bureaucratic burdens and allows individuals to fit learning around their complex lives.

Our joint vision for a demand-led system of vocational qualifications is based on a set of design principles that allow units and qualifications to be updated quickly to keep pace with innovation and to meet employers' and individuals' needs both today and tomorrow.

We strongly believe that any framework needs to recognise that qualifications are not just for the young to provide a foundation of learning for work. Qualifications and lifelong learning are increasingly required for people of all ages. In the light of the current pensions crisis, lifelong learning may increasingly be the norm for those well past 50 as working longer becomes a necessary reality for many.

The framework must be intelligible, transparent and provide progressive opportunities for people to achieve qualifications over time and be designed to evolve without changing the whole qualification. The framework also needs to be flexible enough to accommodate options for companies at the leading edge of technology and the majority which make up mainstream practice.

Qualifications will only be supported by employers when they are clearly relevant to their requirements, are simple to understand, and are responsive to their specific needs. They will only be valued by individuals if they are accepted by employers, assure high quality and validity, offer substantial personal progression, increased mobility and real incentives such as improved earning capacity.

City and Guilds and the National Open College Network have published a paper outlining the conceptual basis of a credit-based vocational qualifications framework and would welcome the views of those within the industry

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