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Firm foundations for future success;Aim High Award;Viewpoint;Opinion

Investment in people is as important as investment in technology. BT, sponsor of the Aim High awards, is responding to the challenge to build up the UK's skills base

This nation, like all others, is facing unprecedented change. The integration of world markets and the increasing pace of technological advances have created increased global competition and uncertainty.

Business needs ever increasing skill levels to succeed and meet more sophisticated customer demands in ever more competitive markets. Likewise schools, colleges and universities are coming under increasing pressure to raise standards and build a more competitive skills base.

BT, as one of Britain's largest companies and a world leader in information and communication technologies, is responding to these challenges. In part this involves recruitment, training and strategies for lifelong learning, combined with continuous improvement in technological development, quality control, productivity and customer care. And in part it involves greater involvement in and expectation of the UK education system.

At BT we have found that there are far too few students who have qualifications in science, mathematics and technological subjects, who can exploit a range of technologies in the workplace, who show the aptitude to adapt to change, who can undertake research and development or who are able to demonstrate core skills such as communications and working with others. Too few understand or are prepared for the changing world of work.

As a high-tech company, we have identified the following skills needs:

* sound knowledge, with five GCSEs at grades A to C and up to degree or NVQ 45 level qualifications; * core skills of communication, numeracy, problem solving, information technology, team working and social and interpersonal skills; * capabilities to be flexible, adaptive, innovative, sensitive and co-operative (customer care), to absorb training (quickly), to exercise leadership and to cope with uncertainty and change; * skills to be developed include communication in all formats, project and self-management, multi-skilling, depth of task-specific skills and skill integration.

In future all recruits will require breadth and depth of knowledge, understanding and skills, plus the capability to adapt and take on increasing self-responsibility within the culture of the business. It is a tall order, but we find that taking care over recruitment pays dividends. We are also investing in training to maintain our technological cutting edge and improve our performance, especially on productivity and quality.

BT is also taking action to influence the supply of skills. This involves helping to develop key skills in the school curriculum, influencing vocational course design and qualifications, sponsoring university students and providing vacation placements. Our experience is that sponsored graduates perform better and make the transition to work more successfully, and they understand BT's business culture. It's money well invested.

BT's education liaison spans primary to further education, supporting the development of science and technology, school management, equal opportunities for women, information technology and the Campus 2000 internet facilities, teacher recruitment and training, and curriculum development using teacher placements, access to training and sponsored projects.

This involves grants, equipment, training, specialist expertise and access to BT's facilities. We are keen to promote the work-related curriculum, economic and industrial understanding and key employability skills in all schools and colleges so as to broaden this nation's skills base and align the curriculum to future skills needs.

Because we need the highest skills, BT's investment in the British education system is among the top five of Business in the Community's 500 members. And because we are concerned about re-cruitment problems in the teaching profession, especially the numbers and quality of graduates for scarce subjects vital to the future of our business, we are dedicating senior management support to the government and the Teacher Training Agency in their endeavours to raise the status of teaching. We are also encouraging our managers with science and technology expertise to consider teaching as a second career.

Finally, as a contribution to social cohesion BT has sponsored mentoring schemes and committed employees to act as mentors for the demotivated, has sponsored the development of The Prince's Trust study support programme, giving young people in disadvantaged communities access to quality learning outside school, and is helping the New Deal and Welfare to Work programmes with training and placements for the unemployed.

It is because the future of BT depends on the quality and relevance of the UK education system for skills that the company has chosen to be the sponsor for Business in the Community's Aim High national and regional awards. These awards set a kitemark of excellence for education business partnerships.

The focus on raising standards, by establishing quality partnerships with clear objectives, committing focused business resources (especially skilled and committed employees) and measuring improvement in performance in academic and vocational subjects, key skills and personal development, is spot on.

We need to prove added value from investment in education and are delighted that the Department for Education and Employment, The TES, education business partnerships, training and enterprise councils and local authorities back the awards as the way to bring rigour and quality into partnership activity.

It is our business culture that investment in people is investment in success and the Aim High award winners prove what can be done when public and private resources are invested in the young people of Britain.

* Bill Cockburn is BT's group managing director. John Steele is BT's group director of personnel and member of the Teacher Training Agency's board and BITC's education leadership team.

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