Businesses in Gloucestershire said they just couldn't find the staff. Then the skills accountants moved in. Martin Whitakker reports
Education and employment minister Kim Howells has applauded an intelligence-gathering drive in Gloucestershire as an ideal way to tackle shortages of skills among the workforce.
Dr Howells aims to improve the flow of information on education and the economy and create the awareness needed for better strategic planning nationally and regionally.
In Gloucestershire, which has low unemployment and a growing manufacturing sector, a skills audit was sparked by reports that businesses could not find enough suitably skilled or experienced staff.
The audit involved a four-month investigation of local businesses and resulted in a 40-page report confirming these fears, identifying the sectors affected and recommending action.
But what happens when the researchers have done their bit? How can agencies, colleges and employers act to fill the skills gap? And is the skills audit really as useful a tool as Dr Howells believes?
Certainly it seems to be in fashion. Last year a skills audit comparing UK educational levels with other leading industrial nations was carried out for the last government's third Competitiveness White Paper.
The report claimed the workforce lacked the basic skills to keep Britain competitive. But it also questioned what could be done to address the problem.
The Gloucestershire audit was sponsored by the county council and the local training and enterprise council. It was carried out by the county's Labour Market Information Unit between last October and February this year.
The unit conducted postal and telephone surveys of businesses with more than 25 employees across all sectors of industry. Then a number of big local employers were interviewed.
Skill shortages and recruitment problems were identified in manufacturing, engineering and information technology. The problem was also found to be mainly a lack of people with the experience required, rather than a lack of formal qualifications.
Finally the report recommended "that the economic agencies, employers and education and training providers address the highlighted issues as a matter of urgency with a view to developing action plans for the decisive decade ahead of us".
Kay Cheesman, head of Gloucestershire TEC guidance and training division, said: "There were no surprises, but it added meat to the suppositions that there were skill shortages in various areas."
The TEC is trying to pinpoint the skill shortages. The county's Strategic Education Forum - a body which includes school, college, local authority, TEC and employer representatives - is co-ordinating a response to the findings.
"We are putting into place a strategy which will be from cradle to grave to meet these skill areas. So, for example, in terms of IT, it isn't just about ensuring that all school-leavers are IT literate.
"It might be about ensuring that all teachers in Gloucestershire's schools are IT literate, and that the schools have the facilities to train their staff, be familiar with the latest software, and so on."
However there are questions about how effective these strategies will prove to be in the long term.
Kay Cheesman says: "I have some sympathy with people who say it's going through the motions, or there's not a lot of depth to it. But you have to start somewhere, and I think a joint partnership between a county council and a TEC and the messages that it sends out are important."
Professor Alan Smithers, head of Brunel University's centre for education and employment research, agrees that the skills audit is a good starting point. But he has misgivings about its overall usefulness.
"I think the research can be a fairly cheap displacement activity actually. You can spend your time listing things. You're conscious there's a problem - to solve the problem will cost money, so you put your money into describing it and coming up with good plans on paper.
"But at the end of the day, not very much happens. Then, when somebody is confronted and asked what are you doing about this, they say well - we've got the skills audit, we've got this action plan - but the colleges are still not getting the money to put on the training programmes that everybody needs.
"Skills audits are the flavour of the month, I think. But the acid test will be how many extra people will be in good training."