A man on a mission

16th November 2007 at 00:00

Develop your employees and you will improve your business success, claims Billy Allan - and he should know. A highly successful businessman who left school at 16 and became an apprentice electrical engineer is to be the public face of the new skills body, it has been announced.

Billy Allan, chairman of learn-direct scotland, will act as interim chairman of the new agency which is being formed from his own organisation, Careers Scotland and the skills and training functions of Scottish Enterprise.

Another familiar figure in the education world has been appointed interim chief executive - Donald Henderson, former head of the teachers' division in the Government's education department, where he was closely involved in helping to implement the national teachers' agreement.

Mr Allan, 46, has been chairman of learndirect scotland for the past three years and has brought a particular focus to the training and learning needs of small and medium-sized enterprises.

His background is firmly in that mould, but one which he has also broken. When he left school, he joined EJ Stiell, a facilities management and business services group. So involved did he become, he bought it. He sold to Alfred McAlpine in 2002 for pound;85 million. He is now executive chairman of ASCO, a provider of supply chain management services and solutions to the international oil and gas sector.

Although Mr Allan was a keen devotee of supporting the learning and skills needs of business, he was also at pains to stress that other customers would not be neglected.

He told The TESS shortly after taking up his appointment at learn-direct scotland, that he believed it had scored major successes in supporting detached and disaffected learners, stepping in to correct what he described as "market failure" by raising awareness of learning opportunities and stimulating demand for them. Learndirect scotland has details of more than 80,000 courses and more than 500,000 callers to its helpline who have received guidance and advice.

The new skills body will be given a firm steer by the Government to stimulate business growth, based on what Mr Allan calls employee development rather than training. He is a strong believer in the connection between the two. "We can't demonstrate a direct correlation between staff training and business success," he has said. "It is impossible to show what the return is, but there is no doubt there is a correlation and the link is more than co-incidental. Those who invest in employee development are the most successful. It's a fact."

Mr Allan is proud to point out that EJ Stiell spent twice the national average of its competitors on training staff. The results spoke for themselves - pound;7 million in sales when he bought the company in 1995 grew to pound;120 million when he sold it.

A reason often cited for employers' reluctance to train their staff is that they will take up jobs with their competitors. Mr Allan disputes this, pointing out that staff turnover in the McAlpine business was less than 2 per cent a year: "The key is to treat staff with respect and create a culture that makes them want to stay."

Other appointments to the body are Janet Lowe, chair of the skills committee of the Scottish Funding Council and former principal of Lauder College; Barbara Duffner, a Scottish Enterprise board member who chaired the review which led to the establishment of Careers Scotland; and Willie Roe, chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

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