Fall in training reflects sharper focus
"Education and training are the best economic policy we have - the key to providing us with the skills we need for the future," he told the TUC in Blackpool.
Yet, as he spoke last week, the latest figures from his department showed a huge drop in the number of young people and adults doing work-based training.
Figures for June show that compared with a year before, the number was down 8 per cent, from 280,000 to 259,000.
The number starting on training schemes was worse: 13 per cent down. And the figure showing how many had started schemes in the three months up until June, compared with the same three months the year before was down a startling 52 per cent.
For adults, the picture is much the same: down 34 per cent over the 12 months, or a massive 74 per cent compared with 1994. Something seems to have gone wrong, and it looks to many as though Mr Blunkett is trying to apply some emergency treatment.
His announcement followed the first report of the National Skills Task Force calling for better co-ordination, support for small and medium-size companies on recruitment, help with mobility, and a national strategy for skill shortages in areas such as IT.
Mr Blunkett also asked the task force to look at how to strengthen training in the workplace, including apprenticeships. But should he be worried by the latest DFEE figures? Almost certainly not, say those who have looked closely at the relationship between training and the labour market.
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool, said the figures reflected a fundamental shift in government policy dating back to the Major administration and fully supported by New Labour. Instead of creating generalised training programmes such as Youth Training - often seen as "make work" schemes - the emphasis now was on training linked to a specific job.
"Government-supported training was introduced as an emergency measure in the 1980s to provide something for unemployed young people or older people who had lost their jobs to do," he said.
"But the strategy changed in the late 1980s to concentrate more on providing training linked to employment, hence the Modern Apprenticeship scheme and the New Deal. And as the economy has picked up we've also become more sophisticated in what we do. We've realised there's no point in providing any old training. It's got to be linked to employment."
Peter Robinson, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a labour market economist , is also unfazed by the latest DFEE figures. "We're seeing a lot of rebadging of people as Modern Apprentices who were previously doing Youth Training.
"There's a lot of displacement going on. Work-based training for adults has been declining steadily since 1993 as a result of the previous government's decision to switch resources into more cost- effective employment programmes and away from the more expensive schemes whose effectiveness had been called into question by research."
The shift in resources seems to be reflected at ground level in the FE colleges which stand to gain from the process. David Eades, principal of Barnsley College and a member of the Further Education Funding Council, has seen a big increase in student numbers in recent years.
The number of 16-year-olds enrolling this year is up 7 per cent, retention rates have risen, and there have also been large rises in the numbers of employed people sent for training by employers.
"I've no doubt that the focus for colleges is going to be on training for people in work to improve their productivity and to make sure they retain their employability," he said.