He means business

The director general of the British Chambers of teh British Chambers of Commerce is ouspoken, full of drive and has the ear of the government. He is determined to ensure that commerce has influence on the new skills councils and that colleges are tuned in to its needs. He talks to Francis Beckett

Training and enterprise councils were doomed to fail, says Chris Humphries, chief executive of the TEC National Council from 1994 to 1998. The problem, he says, was that central funding of colleges through the Further Education Funding Council did not allow local training councils to plan skills provision, so there was never a mechanism locally for getting the right balance of skills.

"They didn't want to annoy the colleges by rejecting their plans. So they'd say, 'OK, it's good enough to rock and roll.' " Certainly, he will not be mourning the demise of either the TECs or the FEFC.

He is enthusiastic about the 47 learning and skills councils that will replace them, but in his post-1998 role as director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, he points out that the business representation on the councils is not as big as he would have wanted.

The Chambers of Commerce asked for 60 per cent business people. What they'll get is 33 per cent - just six business people on each council. He brushes this aside - it's yesterday's argument, he says, but the fact remains that in the average local learning council region there are 130,000 employing businesses.

"The chances of six people doing justice to this are zero," he says. "The LSCs and the regional development agencies are going to have to find more effective ways of tapping into the business community than six people can provide."

As far as he is concerned, the new system has a real chance of giving Britain the skills it needs to compete. And what Humphries thinks matters.

In March 1998, four months before he left the training councils to go to the Chambers of Commerce, he was appointed chairman of the Government's Skills Taskforce, with no less a brief than to be what David Blunkett described as "the centrepiece of a national assault on skills shortages".

Typically, he made it clear from the outset that he wanted real changes, even in the short term. A mechanism was needed, he says, "to enable us to match demand a bit more closely than a free market allows". Its first three reports have already appeared and the fourth and final report is due this summer.

Humphries is close enough to New Labour to be given ears in government circles, and he is one of the few people who can go off-message occasionally without entirely losing influence. Naturally, there's always a price to be paid for straying from the fold in the era of New Labour - even for Humphries. It may even have lost him the chance of heading the national Learning and Skills Council - just as, under the Conservatives, he once lost the opportunity of heading the Further Education Funding Council for speaking out of turn.

He's fluent, fast-talking and energetic. Colleagues regard him with a kind of breathless admiration. "Brilliant, driven, convivial, but deeply serious" is the vrdict of Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the adult learners' organisation. "What I like is the enormous clarity he brings to talking about things."

The reports of the Skills Task Force, although a committee job, are acknowledged to be largely Humphries' work. Remarkably, they have generally managed to strike a difficult balance between seeming responsible and affordable in government circles, yet radical and interesting to educationists.

One serious criticism often voiced is that the reports offer no solution to the problem of how to deal with employers who are not interested in training. It is all very well to say that employers must be consulted and their skills needs met, but there are companies that are content to play no part in training and to poach skills when they happen to need them.

Humphries, however, is unrepentant. "When colleges say that businesses cannot tell us what they need, I say: 'You are asking the wrong businesses in the wrong way'." And yet he knows it's not that simple. He expends great effort persuading employers to make their needs known, while the Taskforce calls on them to act collaboratively through the National Training Organisation.

Sometimes, he sounds like one of those messianic private-sector prophets who believes that if only the flabby public sector could be demolished, the market would create heaven on earth before you could say "bottom line". But he isn't. He knows both these sides well, has worked in the public and private sectors, and respects both.

He started his career as a philosophy lecturer at university in Australia, arriving in London in 1974 and working for five years as a media resources officer in - of all places - the Inner London Education Authority. Only after that did Humphries the entrepreneur emerge. With two partners, he set up a small independent television production company. Then, in 1982, he returned to education, working for six years at the National Council for Educational Technology - then back to work in the private sector again, this time for ICL, the computer firm, then Acorn Computers.

The training and enterprise councils must have seemed a natural home for a man who had moved so easily all his life between the public and private sectors, for they were supposed to be private sector operations, set up at the height of the Conservatives' conviction that only the private sector could run anything. But the private-sector trimmings were never much more than a veneer. They depended on the public sector for their money and influence and were always more like quangos than companies.

The pretence that the private sector can do it all is at an end. So, from his influential perch at the Chambers of Commerce, Humphries is now busy trying to persuade the private sector to play a full part in the new skills councils.

With their huge remit and pound;6 billion annual budget, they offer hope. "Business has to put something into this process, not merely receive the outputs" he says. What he thinks we should do with businesses that sit on their hands is another question: an interesting one, maybe, but one for tomorrow, not today.

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