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'Soft' skills plea by bosses

Business leaders have called on the Scottish Executive's curriculum review to address deficiencies in "softer" skills which they claim are causing "multiple and serious difficulties" in the labour market, especially in lower paid jobs.

Their message comes in the wake of the employers' survey carried out by Futureskills Scotland, the labour market intelligence arm of Scottish Enterprise (FE Focus, last week).

At a conference in Glasgow last week to unveil the survey findings, Stephen Boyle, director of Futureskills Scotland, highlighted the "loud and clear" message that soft skills are more of an issue for employers than technical skills.

Soft skills are defined as the ability to communicate, to be part of a team, to solve problems, to show leadership and to deal with customers - as opposed to the technical skills necessary to do a job. The survey showed that 48 per cent of employers thought school-leavers were not well prepared for work compared with 60 per cent in 2002.

Matthew Farrow, head of policy at CBI Scotland, said that the lack of core and soft skills which concerns employers cannot be solved by attacking it at the modern apprenticeship or lifelong learning end of the spectrum.

"A lot of good work has gone on in the Scottish Qualifications Authority and in schools and colleges to try to develop core skills in compulsory education," Mr Farrow said, "but all the feedback I hear is that it has been very difficult and people complain about curriculum overload. The curriculum review is a real once in a generation chance."

John Downie of the Federation of Small Businesses echoed the CBI plea and urged that space be created in the early years for soft skills such as communication and problem-solving. "What we are looking for is making sure that kids have the skills that our members - large, medium and small - say are the core issues. We have to decide what to take out and what to put in the curriculum."

The conference heard from Anton Colella, acting chief executive of the SQA, that the renewed emphasis on vocational courses in secondary schools is an opportunity to create a "coherent educational, vocational and training framework".

Mr Colella said: "The current Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework reflects what already exists in Scotland, but what does it mean for a 15-year-old who wants to pursue a vocational course in life, where do they go and what is ahead of them? We have not defined that for young people in Scotland yet.

"If we are going to create esteem around vocationally based learning, we need to ensure that the young people who are engaged in national qualifications see the relationship between what they are doing and national occupational standards in particular career areas."

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