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Skills are essential if we are to bridge the slump

Comment: Chris Banks

Comment: Chris Banks

I have never seen a greater consensus on the importance of skills. Perhaps the cloud of recession will have a silver lining after all.

I recently sat on a panel alongside Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, Michael Davis, director of strategy and performance at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce. The event was arranged to discuss the fundamental role of skills in helping us to deal with the recession. It was an opportunity to discuss the importance of skills in both the response to the recession and taking advantage of the upturn when it comes.

It was also a great opportunity to acknowledge the key role of further education and the good work done by the sector recently. Over the past year, I have been particularly encouraged by the work of providers, especially colleges, to work alongside local employers and adapt to changing priorities.

But there are more challenges to prepare for. The Government's new skills strategy calls for a more strategic understanding of employer demand. "Skills activism" sets a new landscape for a more active approach to delivering the skills that the economy needs now and in the future.

We need to look at how we will use skills to contribute to recovery and drive long-term growth, but at the same time make sure that we maintain our responsibility for others in the labour market.

It is vital that together we find a way of funding the skills of our country's workforce. Maintaining the investment throughout these difficult times and after, when the upturn arrives, is not going to be easy. As the public purse starts to feel the pinch, we need to look again at all forms of funding, including fees and encouraging co-investment from employers.

The recession has led to unprecedented demand for training - from individuals, and from employers for their staff. As employers increasingly see the benefit of a skilled workforce, and as more people than ever are thinking about how they can improve their chances of finding employment, we have been forced to consider how that demand is managed.

We need to ensure an effective and responsive skills sector and to look at how we can enable colleges to respond quickly and efficiently to challenges that come their way, empowering them to do what they do best. I don't think this is necessarily about what more can be done from the centre but about what the centre can do less of.

For a world-class system, we need to identify and spread best practice rapidly. We need to learn and keep a record of how the skills sector responds to and deals with the difficulties during this recession and recovery so that we are better equipped for future challenges. It could be the most important corporate legacy we leave, so let's continue to have these open, honest and productive debates: the more we can play our part, the thicker the silver lining will be.

Chris Banks, Chairman, Learning and Skills Council.

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