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My mission is for every Scot to be ready for tomorrow's jobs

Neil Munro meets a minister who has just acquired a new role as Cilla Black

Wendy Alexander, the Matchmaker. Improbable, but there it is. As the Lifelong Learning Minister presided over the launch of the Scottish University for Industry's Learndirect Scotland service on Wednesday, she blessed it as a means to an end of the "blind date" syndrome which mismatched people's needs to available learning.

The "big picture" is Ms Alexander's preference and she is nothing if not a minister with a mission. We have her word for it.

"What is the mission of my department?" she asks. "It is for every Scot to be ready for tomorrow's jobs." Her grand canvas against which she is happy for this aspiration to be judged includes lowering unemployment, so far from 300,000 to 100,000, and "making work pay" via mechanisms such as the minimum wage and the working families tax credit.

The third indicator is making jobs secure and this is where Ms Alexander's mission is to reinforce the pivotal role of education, or "the learning industry" as we must get used to describing it. It is not so much a question of "the third way" towards greater job security but three ways to underpin it.

First is the one-stop approach to careers guidance announced last week.

Second comes getting the right learning, which is where the University for Industry is intended to act. The third element is knowing what skills are required and this will be addressed in a review of the enterprise network to place learning and skills at its core. Ms Alexander will unveil her proposals in three weeks.

"Lifelong careers guidance for lifelong learning" is how she wants last week's announcement to be seen. Marketing the University for Industry, her second strand, will launch another of her slogans - "the pain-free way to learn".

Ms Alexander believes the University for Industry could make as significant a contribution as the Open University. "I call it ending the blind date - matching people's desire for education or people without education to the education that's needed." It is the same matching as she expects from the revamped careers service.

"You know the message," she continues, gathering speed. "Why does this matter? Well, there's the quite horrific picture which emerged from a survey last year that 60 per cent of Scots in work said they saw no need for them to get lifelong learning opportunities."

Such attitudes among the workforce may reflect job satisfaction, complacency or feelings of being adequately skilled. But Ms Alexander believes she knows what is good for them. "The truth is we cannot protect those Scots in today's global market. If you have no skills, you fail."

In evidence, she cites the "astonishingly clear" data linking qualifications to employment. Those with degrees have a nine out of 10 chance of being in work, those with three or more Highers an eight out of 10 chance, those with Standard grades a seven out of 10 chance and those without any qualifications only a five out of 10 chance.

"It is quite hard to have been at university and to be unemployed these days," she states. "So my message is: get educated and you're protected in the jobs market."

At Wednesday's launch of the University for Industry, which Ms Alexander attended with Henry McLeish, the First Minister, she gave vent to yet another marketing soundbite as she stresed the agency's mission to the disadvantaged. These are "the 3Ds - the disaffected who believe education is 'not for me', the disappointed who have been knocked back by formal education and the disappeared whom the system doesn't impinge on at all."

Her strong view is that these changes must be driven by the learner, not the provider. Borrowing from what has become virtually the mantra of lifelong learning, Ms Alexander said studying should be "at the convenience of the learner, wherever they want to learn, whenever they want and however they want".

Variety is to be the spice of lifelong learning - "a menu of different distribution channels for learning", the minister calls it. It may be in traditional settings, but it could be via video-conference or online "during the night shift at two in the morning".

Already 45,000 course details have been amassed on the Learndirect Scotland website, ready to act as "a marriage broker of learning opportunities" in the now familiar matrimonial analogy.

These will be "matched" to the 100,000 people the Government wants to act as the initial trailblazers for individual learning accounts (ILAs).

Already ministers have been pleasantly surprised that there have been 34,000 enquires about learning accounts since they were officially launched in September. This is the upside of the 60 per cent who said they did not want anything to do with lifelong learning.

But Ms Alexander is well aware that it is the demand side of the equation which requires the greater stimulation, which is one of the reasons why the Federation of Small Businesses and the trade unions have been enlisted to champion the cause. Further encouragement is intended to be provided from the 20 per cent discount on all courses available to those who open a learning account.

The knowledge economy and "web-enabled environments" are subjects close to the minister's heart, so she wastes no time in pointing out that information technology courses will also attract an 80 per cent cost reduction for ILA students. There are expected to be 330,000 vacancies in IT-related jobs in the UK by the end of next year. "So that part of Britain where supply and demand in IT vacancies can be most quickly and easily matched wins," Ms Alexander observed.

The advent of the University for Industry will also mean the accreditation of 300 learning centres which carry the Learndirect Scotland endorsement of quality provision; another 20 were announced on Wednesday adding to the 30 which exist so far.

But Ms Alexander, more than any of her predecessors, is keen that learning should not take off in "the usual suspect places" but should be behind the shop counter or the shop floor as well as off the job. Colleges and universities, in other words, will have to earn their place in the sun.

"You earn what you learn," another ministerial favourite, will be applied as much to the provider as to the learner.


'I call it ending the blind date - matching people's desire for education or people without education to the education that's needed'

'The truth is we cannot protect those Scots in today's global market who don't want to learn. If you have no skills, you fail'

'It is quite hard to have been at university and to be unemployed these days. So my message is: get educated and you're protected'

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