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Jacqui Hepburn

The director of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils in Scotland discusses the importance of including employers in the design of education and skills policy, and the best approach to help young people into work. Photography by Colin Hattersley

The director of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils in Scotland discusses the importance of including employers in the design of education and skills policy, and the best approach to help young people into work. Photography by Colin Hattersley

What skills do you need to do your job?

A sound understanding of education and skills policy and the system. I have worked in nearly all parts of the system over the past 25 years, and having worked in training, college, university and with employers now, I have a thorough understanding of how it operates, for good and for bad. You also need political awareness.

What is the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils in Scotland?

We are the representative body for the 21 sector skills councils that operate across the UK. We coordinate policy positions to inform education and skills; we bring employers together to debate skills policy; produce robust labour market information; and create information, advice and guidance materials.

Our work around qualifications and apprenticeships is important - we have vocational qualifications and apprenticeships that fit the needs of Scotland now and going forward. The most important thing is to be the employer's voice in the system, to be able to get our providers, colleges and universities delivering the right programmes and be able to support upskilling, reskilling and new-skilling and entry into employment.

Would you call your own career path a conventional one?

Not at all. I left school at 16, due to family circumstances, went out on a Monday to find a job and got one. I worked for a few years but then had to study at the same time, so I spent 15 years in all studying, starting with an HNC in business studies at Inverness College, which I did one day a week, working every Saturday to get the time off. It culminated in a master's degree in education from Aberdeen University. I think as long as you wish to develop your skills and your experience, you can.

What do you think schools should be teaching more of?

Giving people rounded skills. Curriculum for Excellence is looking at the individual as a whole. However, young people have to have good core skills - communication, numeracy, teamwork and IT. The other thing is enabling young people at school to open their eyes to the many opportunities there are. If you look at the future industries and jobs, we have great opportunities around renewables, creative industries and others. Work experience is key for this. A young person's knowledge and awareness of the workplace is critical.

Do you think there is adequate leadership to drive the skills agenda, or are there too many cooks?

My view is that there is still a range of bodies working in the system, but the key is clarification of roles and responsibilities. It's about how they fit together, who does what, and how that is communicated effectively to people. In terms of leadership, it is going in the right direction with the recent appointment of the minister for youth employment.

Do employers have enough influence over skills policy?

Steps have been taken to engage employers more with the system. We have employers who are engaged in the design of qualifications with our awarding bodies, employers on college boards and university privy councils, employers engaged with our sector skills councils in terms of their Scottish and UK boards. The challenge is how do employers see their input being transferred into policy? If you were to ask them, they want more of a say in terms of the education and skills system and a faster response in how it operates.

What are the key measures in tackling youth unemployment?

The first thing is ensuring our young people have a set of core skills, so employers can build on that. The second is having opportunities that are funded through the public purse, such as modern apprenticeship programmes that are attractive to individuals, but also to employers. It is also important to provide a route towards training providers, and colleges have a critical role in providing opportunities at 16.

University education is right for some and we do need higher-level skills, because of where the economy is going. For the hard-to-help people who are unemployed, you need programmes to develop skills. Employers also have a role within this.

In our manifesto last year, we were looking for the Government to use public procurement contracts, so that through any public contracts they would provide training and modern apprenticeship places. We are pleased it has done that.

If you had a son or daughter about to leave school, which direction would you advise them to go in to find a job?

Both of my children have been to university. Would I encourage them now? There are two areas I would consider. The first would be what is the best route for what they want to do, because a lot of employers have good, structured programmes for people leaving school at 16, that can lead right through to a degree. They are getting paid from day one and can have a successful career with that company. The choice would be around "is the best route to go straight into employment and do an apprenticeship or is it they want to go into medicine, law or nursing, where they have to have a degree?" I certainly would not just say, "Go to university".


Born: Inverness, 1965

Education: Dalneigh Primary; Inverness High

Career: Office junior, assistant accountant, set up training company, senior manager at Inverness College UHI, director of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils in Scotland, 2008-.

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