Colleges and universities have been set a fresh challenge to raise their game in a new report on skills commissioned by the Scottish Government.
The study, by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), calls for a concerted national effort to make Scotland "world class" in employment and skills by 2020 - which would mean being ranked among the top eight countries globally.
It suggests this will require learners and local communities to exert more influence over colleges, universities and other education providers, and be given more information about what they have to offer. Among the proposals is "food-labelling-style" information (below), which the commission believes holds the key to "empowering" learners to drive up skills, and therefore employment and productivity.
In an interview with The TESS, Chris Humphries, chief executive of the UKCES, said: "Our message is simple: people get more advice and information to help them choose a television than a career. How do you go about finding out what jobs there are in the world, what people do in them and what programmes are available to get them?"
Mr Humphries acknowledged that Scotland was "ahead of the game" after the careers service became embedded in Skills Development Scotland. But he felt information on careers was not comprehensive enough and did not take full advantage of online sites, such as eBay, YouTube or Facebook, which "bring dry, factual information to life by enriching it through personal experience, peer group advice, mentoring and support groups".
The commission's report commends the US approach through the O*NET service, which sets out detailed information about every job in the labour market, including factors such as how many there are likely to be in the future, salaries, and so on.
Having found the information they want, learners need to choose which study programmes suit them, he added. It was much more difficult to do that in further education than in higher education, where students can easily find out which universities have the best record in placing graduates in employment and which are best for which subjects.
This led the commission to propose its "food-labelling" system, which would require colleges to display information on outcomes such as learner success rates, job and salary prospects and levels of customer satisfaction.
But Mr Humphries warned that this would lead to universities and colleges being judged not just on their attainment and retention levels, but on the impact they were having on individuals and communities. "This could be in terms of the number of jobs being created through particular skills, the extent to which skills gaps have been reduced, and other measures of that kind," he said.
"This approach will become more necessary as funding dries up and ensure we are getting value for our investment. In turn, governments will have to make tougher choices about how they allocate resources."
He suggested there had to be a shift in accountability: "At present, it only goes one way - to the top and to the funder - which is wrong: colleges, universities and other providers need to be more accountable to the communities they serve."
The twin-pronged drive to improve skills - through better information and a more responsive education and training system - had to be backed up by greater "ambition and innovation" among employers. This was essential to plug the so-called "skills utilisation" gap, resulting from a mismatch in Scotland between a highly-skilled population and poor productivity levels.
Consultations held by the commission in Scotland found that a major complaint from employers was the difficulty in finding support for workforce development to help them become "high growth, high skill and high value-added" businesses. The report calls for better business development programmes and a less "fragmented" system.
Steps have been taken to streamline employment and skills services, through more integration between careers offices and job centres, which is being piloted in 23 areas of Scotland, England and Wales. Still to be resolved is the political issue that responsibility for skills rests with devolved parliaments while employment policy is reserved to Westminster.
The recommendations were welcomed by Keith Brown, the Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning, who said they would be considered as the Government refreshed its Skills for Scotland strategy.
Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth for Scotland can be downloaded on the right-hand side