Out of the comfort zone
Maybe it's her background, maybe it's the feistiness, maybe it's because her organisation is operating under a hail of friendly fire, but it's hard to get away from military metaphors when talking about Sarah Jones and learndirect. You could say that Jones, who joined 18 months ago from defence contractor BAE systems, is a bit of a culture shock for the organisation. She believes that you only value what you have to pay for, and that one of the reasons that British businesses are so poor at encouraging their workforces to gain new skills - almost half provide no training for employees - is that they are not prepared to pay for it. She is fiercely competitive - "competition is my normal modus operandi"- and she freely admits that the FE training sector is so confusing it puts many employers off : "I was amazed by the number of different stakeholders and funding parcels when I came to this job."
Most of all, though, she is leading her company through challenging times - from the comfort zone of generous public funding to the hostile terrain of commercial competition, and on a mission described even by the organisation's supporters as "tough". Under her leadership, learndirect aims to increase its commercial business from not much more than pound;1 million a year, or 2 per cent of its income, to pound;40 million a year, or 20 per cent, by 2010, a target Jones describes as "stretching".
Not only that, but she must swing learndirect's focus, which until now has been on individual learners, sharply round to meet the needs of British business, and a workforce recognised as one of the least skilled in the developed world.
The interim findings last year of the Leitch review, set up to look at our skills and training needs, make grim reading. The UK ranks 24th out of the 29 most-developed nations. More than one-third of adults do not have a basic school-leaving qualification - double the proportion in Germany and Canada - and 5 million have none at all. More than half lack basic skills; in France, where only a quarter of workers are classed as low-skilled, output per hour is almost a third higher.
Most alarmingly, Lord Leitch says that even if we continue with existing programmes, the situation in 2020 will be little better. "The nation's human capital will still fail to be world class," he says. His definitive findings are due to be published later this year; it seems clear that the report will call for a massive extra push to boost skills training and qualifications for adults.
On this assumption, observers say, government interest, and investment, in delivering further education can only grow. By equal measure, the pressure is on for training providers such as learndirect to deliver. To be fair, the Government has signalled its determination to boost workforce training for some time. Last summer, the Learning and Skills Council, which funds learndirect, set out plans to make FE more business-focused. This April, the FE white paper announced further measures to boost training, and sharpen competition among providers.
But Phil Hope, the skills minister, agrees with Jones that Ufilearndirect has nothing to fear from increased competition: "Ufi believes that it is well placed to compete because of the uniqueness of what it is offering, particularly for learners put off by more formal ways of learning."
Jones appears undaunted. Although she says it was never expected that Ufilearndirect be self-funding - nor could it be, given the profile of its learners - she does insist that it needs to become more commercial. "Our biggest challenge is changing the aspirations within learndirect, the sector and employers. I believe you value what you pay for, and we have to get out of the cycle of free provision to drive up the quality of what we do."
It's a call to arms, but then, only 18 months into the job, she has already been battle-hardened by a Commons public accounts committee report in March which, while recognising learndirect's success in reaching individual learners, highlighted a number of concerns. Foremost among them was that the service was spending too much of its budget on management and marketing costs and that it was still failing to access the small and medium businesses (SMEs) that needed its training most. Jones responded by restructuring the training delivery and cutting out one layer of administration.
"We have taken more than pound;30m out of the overheads over the last few months," she says. "At the same time, we have always overperformed our targets. In 2004-2005, our contractual target was 8,300 skills for life first tests. We actually delivered 29,000. In 2005-2006, the target was 29,000 and we have already delivered 41,000. So we are taking less public funding while ramping up performance."
However, the public accounts committee's findings - that only 37 per cent of small to medium enterprises knew that learndirect was intended to support them and only 4 per cent used it - clearly sting. "We've worked with more SMEs than the chambers of commerce. They have 140,000 members.
We've worked with 200,000 since we started." She believes that accusations of inefficiency and profligacy are unjustified.
"The perception around what we've delivered and the value-for-money issue is unfair. The step-change we've brought about should be recognised. A raft of measures to gauge more accurately what employers want, and to deliver it, has already been put into place. An e-commerce website aimed specifically at businesses has opened, and already 244 courses have been sold. "
But Jones has no illusions that the task ahead will be easy. She tells a story of her time managing an ammunitions factory at BAE that demonstrates how hard it can be to make businesses aware of the training available.
During a break in production at the factory, many casual workers were laid off. When production resumed and she tried to rehire them, they had been recruited by another employer.
"We had to take on new people and they had basic numeracy and literacy problems - they couldn't read the safety warnings or instructions. It really hit our productivity," she says.
Keen on training as she was, Jones had never had to deal with a lack of such basic skills before, and at the time had no idea that learndirect existed.
"All it takes is a little bit of investment and a little bit of awareness to be there to help workers like this. But we do need to be there when they need us - at 2am if needs be, when the night shift clocks off."
FIND OUT WHAT'S ON AT LEARNDIRECT
Every day across England, Wales and Northern Ireland some 1,000 people register for a learndirect course.
There are more than 600 of them, split into five areas: skills for life, languages; business and management; home and office IT; and specialist IT.
* If you are already familiar with using a computer, log on to www.learndirect.co.uk to see what's on offer.
If you don't have the confidence to go it alone or don't have access to a computer, there's a network of learndirect centres.
* Staff on the telephone helpline (0800 101 901) will be able to put you in touch with your local centre, one of hundreds across the country. You'll find them on the high street, in leisure and community centres, colleges, sports clubs, libraries and churches. Some even have creches.
* Details of all the centres can also be found on the website.