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Foolish to force firms to train

Paul Mackney (Viewpoint, FE Focus, June 3) criticised the Government's skills white paper as being too narrow and, in particular, attacked the role of the new sector skills councils.

Helpfully, his alternative suggestion - that employers should be compelled to engage in education and training - demonstrated perfectly the degree to which many educationists fail to understand industry, and served to highlight quite brilliantly precisely why it is that the sector skills councils are crucial to solving the skills needs of the nation.

One of our most vital roles is to inform universities, colleges, schools, and other trainers about the needs of employers.

And here is one of the most important things Paul Mackney and many of his colleagues on the "supply side" need to understand. In food and drink manufacturing, for instance, where there are more than 30,000 businesses, 65 per cent of which employ 10 people or fewer. They operate in highly-competitive markets where profits are hard to sustain. Try telling the entrepreneurial heads of these businesses that they will be compelled to invest in education and training, and they will tell you how much longer they have until they go bust and have to put their employees out of work.

Paul Mackney said adult learning is bound to be untidy. It's a good point.

But he needs to understand that the world of industry is a lot more untidy than the world of learning, and you can't solve the problem of skills shortages with simplistic, ill-informed, draconian laws.

Employers' needs, and their ability to contribute to investment in skills, vary enormously - from those of the multi-national conglomerate to the one-man band.

Yes, all employers have to be encouraged to invest more in skills, but first we have to ensure that the training and qualifications are relevant to their collective needs in each major sector. At the moment, they are not. To achieve Paul Mackney's desire to transform the skills of the UK workforce, we need to change that.

Sector skills councils exist to represent employers and to work with educationists to help them get it right. Our task has only just begun. We should be welcomed, not rebuffed.

Paul Wilkinson

Chairman, Improve, the food and drink sector skills council

Providence House

2 Innovation Close

Heslington, York

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