Damien Yeates

26th April 2013 at 01:00
The chief executive of Skills Development Scotland discusses the success of Modern Apprenticeships, the need for employer buy-in and the revamp of the careers advice and guidance service. Interview by Julia Belgutay, Photography by James Glossop

You have just reached the 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships target - what is the secret of their success?

They are successful because of employers, the participants and a strong social democratic culture in Scotland. That classic social partnership model works incredibly well.

One of the challenges SDS has faced is the need for buy-in from employers. Why has that been so difficult?

I think that case is overstated. What we are saying is that we would like even more. We have gone from 9,800 apprenticeships in 2008 to 25,000 in the deepest recession since the 1920s. But if you have a large youth employment challenge and you know apprenticeships are successful, why wouldn't you want to do more of it?

What is the biggest challenge when trying to get young people into work?

There is a lot of anecdotal research about the work-readiness of young people, but that is not supported by surveys of employers. So you've got to figure the economic cycle is by a distance the largest contributor. There is a second factor we are looking at, and that is to what degree are there systemic changes in employment and recruitment practices?

You have recently revamped the careers advice and guidance service. How much was that driven by the need to make efficiencies?

Quite the opposite. In a sense, the efficiencies were a by-product. What we have done is engage in probably the most significant investment programme ever. We have increased our staffing in schools, despite views to the contrary, and we have developed CIAG (careers information, advice and guidance) to be a much more sophisticated proposition.

What is different from the previous system?

We are investing more than #163;1 million in our SDS academy to upskill all our staff, our career coaches in schools are going to focus on those most at risk, but always be available for anybody who would need an in-depth session. All students will get a number of group career management sessions, we are equipping teachers, we have spent a lot of time with the parent forum to work out what we need to give them so they are best able to offer support to young people and, in addition, we have introduced work coaches to support people.

What do you say to parents who are concerned that their child may miss out on face-to-face advice?

Any student who really feels they would like face-to-face should get it. We should not be pulling back from that and we have enough resources in schools to do that. The evidence often is to the contrary because a lot of research suggests young people prefer group-based, web-based or webchat environments until they get more familiar with the instances and then thereafter face-to face can build on that.

Has the launch of My World of Work (MWOW) been a success?

More than 206,000 students have now registered - which, on any measure, is a huge success. The feedback we are getting about experiences in school environments is extremely positive. It is not a website - it is effectively a career management skills environment.

The new strategy is quite heavily web-based, though.

I don't think it is heavily web-based. If you take the career coaches in schools and their salaries and the infrastructure required there, and you take the work coaches, that is a much more significant investment than MWOW. We have modestly increased our investment in schools at a time when the careers service down south has been decimated. The website is really just an enabler.

Is that where the criticism has come from - people overstating the role MWOW plays in the strategy?

I think so. There has been a sense that the introduction of MWOW has arrived in order to enable a reduction of investment in this area, and in fact we have never invested more, never considered more how we build on what went before in order to strengthen it. And if we didn't do it, could you imagine the criticism? People would just laugh you off the street. We just wouldn't be credible if we didn't have a really engaging web environment.

Last year, for the first time SDS directly funded employability courses at colleges. How did that go?

The evidence we have suggests that the programme has acted as an endorsement for some of what was happening anyway. Many of the colleges have terrific industry engagement, programmes to support young people to acquire work-based skills and progress into the world of work. In a way, the programme has proven a real success because it has demonstrated that the asset that is Scotland's colleges has a crucial role to play in all aspects of equipping young people for the world of work.

What would you like to have achieved by the time you leave your post?

If we embed the strategy around career management skills and get traction on that, I would be thrilled. The second thing would be the stretching of the opportunity that is the Modern Apprenticeship programme.


Born: Dublin, July 1965

Education: Dunboyne Junior National School; Coolmine Community School; Dublin City University; University of Strathclyde

Career: Export marketing executive at Polydata; chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry; chief executive of Skills Development Scotland.

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