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Teach the skills employers want

John Stone, who will be speaking at the Learning and Skills Development Agency Northern Ireland conference next week, urges colleges and recruiters to work more closely together

At first sight, there were few surprises in the Learning and Skills Network research report, Employability Skills Explored. Employers' complaints over the lack of employability skills of school and college leavers are well rehearsed, but the Government can rightly claim to be well on the way to re-engineering the training system in an attempt to set things right.

But the devil is in the detail, and new perspectives begin to emerge. Employers would prefer to have it all, but when asked to prioritise between the competing demands of basic communications skills, a broader package of "soft skills", and specific vocational training, their choice is clear.

They rightly expect the state to get the basics right, and to pay for them. For other things, such as teamwork, problem-solving, or customer care, they seem remarkably patient; or possibly just resigned. Employers are prepared to fund development of these skills during the first few years of employment.

For FE colleges, vocational skills come bottom of the pile. With this result comes the implication that employers will choose on-the-job training as the most effective way to ensure they get the skills they need.

Despite all the reforms and efforts, 76 per cent of employers have never used their local college. And, despite all the lobbying from employers' organisations for a one-stop shop to decode the apparent complexity of skills training, only 6 per cent of employers have ever accessed skills brokers, who act as the link between companies and the various colleges and training bodies. This mirrors the experience of training organisations that point to the lack of business coming from skills brokers.

There is just a hint that employers may be part of the problem. The research report suggests older recruiters find it harder to take on young people than their younger counterparts. Age discrimination affects not only the old.

Sir Richard Lambert, director general at the Confederation of British Industry, raised concerns that employers were looking for "people like them", and were sometimes unaware of what young people can offer.

What does all this say about policy priorities? First, the new emphasis on functional skills, more widely available than their predecessor, key skills, must be the right one, and the Skills for Life Strategy should go on. We should not see this as a problem with curriculum content, assessment, or targets, that have all been tried before. The focus should be on individualised goals in an environment capable of motivating young people.

Recent experience suggests colleges and other providers will be unlikely to gain the trust and confidence of employers via a third party. They must be urged to deal directly, and have the flexibility to teach precisely, the skills employers want. This may or may not be linked to a qualification.

Qualifications may move us up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league tables, but ultimately it is skills in the workplace that make the difference. As our survey shows, many employers are willing to pay for the right training.

Finally, employers need to invest more in training, work more closely with colleges, and be more willing to give young people the chance to experience work. They also need to open their eyes to the skills young people bring to the table.

If only employers could see these skills, then they would begin to understand the benefits available to them.

John Stone is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Network. The LSDA Northern Ireland annual conference will be held next Tuesday (April 22) at Galgorm Manor Hotel, near Belfast.

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