Executives should 'sweat over skills'

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Call for funding body to concentrate on demand, not courses. Harvey McGavin reports

THE LEARNING and Skills Council should be given a legal duty to retrain the nation's workforce and take a lead in attracting new learners, according to a senior industrialist and Government adviser.

Chris Humphries, director general of the British Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Government-appointed Skills Task Force, said the LSC should concentrate on stimulating demand for learning rather than managing supply.

From next April the council will be responsible for the nation's pound;6 billion post-16 education and training outside universities.

"The demand problem is a very real one," he said. "You don't solve it by putting on more courses. You have to work with individuals at a local level and demonstrate that it is worth it."

His proposals, which are likely to be echoed in the third and final report of the task force, which ministers will receive in the next two weeks, amount to a total rethink of education and training strategy.

Recently launched initiatives such as Local Learning Partnerships, the University for Industry and learndirect, its delivery arm, were doing little to solve the problem. He said that learndirect "doesn't tackle motivation or willingness or confidence at all".

He said the LSC should have a "statutory obligation to target development of the whole of the workforce, not just the young". He warned that the estimated one-fifth of employees with literacy and numeracy problems would not be tempted back into an education system that had failed them only to fail again.

"We need to help them regain their confidence by giving them opportunities t succeed."

He also called for the LSC to have a duty to set up "a workforce development strategy". This would be based around "employer learning networks", in which clusters of businesses - in high streets, business parks or industrial estates - employ a project worker to organise "non-threatening" training and education.

"You have to tackle each individual worker to help bring them confidence and motivation and make it work for them. But once you get people back on the road to learning they will drive themselves."

According to a British Chamber of Commerce survey, only 4 per cent of businesses with fewerthan 50 workers have a full-time employee responsible for training. By joining forces, small businesses could enjoy the economies of scale and purchasing power of larger companies and replicate proven employee-friendly schemes like that at Ford, he said. "We need to make the employee development approach accessible to firms small and large."

At the BCC national conference in London this week, Mr Humphries called on business people to get involved in the new local learning and skills councils. He said: "Business has to put something into this process, not merely receive the outputs. It is unfair to criticise the system from the outside without putting in the time and effort to get it right."

Each of the 47 local learning and skills councils should be given a strategic responsibility, funding and a target for reskilling people, he said. "I want every executive director sweating over how they are going to raise the skills base, not just about how they are going to get higher pass rates from the local college. This is a fantastically exciting agenda."

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