The push-me-pull-you nature of skills

1st August 2008 at 01:00
Neil Munro continues his look at the key issues in the skills debate and the best use of people's talents

"Boldly going where none have gone before." That is the view of one expert on the current efforts to make better use of the talents in Scotland's workforce.

"Skills utilisation" is the new game in town, according to Ewart Keep of Cardiff University. It is intended to address the "conundrum" that our high investment in skills is not paying off in terms of strong economic growth or increased productivity.

Professor Keep says tackling it poses big challenges for policy-makers, employers and education and training organisations. "The new focus has to move from building the biggest stockpile of qualifications to supplying the skills that are really needed, stimulating further demand for skill and ensuring that the skill which has already been supplied gets used to maximum effect."

This demand-led skills approach is now endorsed by all UK ministers, as reported last week, and is now firmly in the sights of the key players in Scotland, namely Willy Roe, chair of Skills Development Scotland, and Janet Lowe, chair of the Scottish Funding Council's skills committee.

Ms Lowe, the former principal of Carnegie College in Fife, sees her current role as making colleges and universities even more responsive to the skill needs of the country. "Relevance" of provision is her watchword. She wants more employers to get involved with further and higher education, which she believes should improve the employability of students.

The funding council for further and higher education has invested pound;6 million in this employability programme. Roger McClure, its former chief executive, said the council "would like to see students taught to recognise and value soft skills, such as problem-solving, flexibility, team-working and communication, and to have even more opportunity to develop these alongside their academic abilities".

The SFC's skills committee has also been active on the other side of the equation, investigating specific business sectors where action is needed such as energy, the health service, financial services and shipbuilding. Making better use of the skills that people already have - the skills utilisation agenda - is now a priority for the SFC and the fledgling Skills Development Scotland. It is a recognition of stark demography: the number of young people is in decline and 75 per cent of those who will be working in 2020 are in jobs now.

The issue is at the top of the political tree: Fiona Hyslop, the Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary, hosted a dinner with colleges and universities on May 27 just to explore this topic.

Ms Lowe acknowledges that deploying skills to best effect requires employer "pull" and employee "push". Or, as Professor Keep puts it: "Demand for skills is derived from business need. Change the need to increase the demand." But, as Ms Lowe also concedes: "This needs a workplace environment in which people are encouraged to use their skills."

So this agenda depends as much on good employer-employee relations as on anything else. As Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish TUC, has pointed out, the development of skills can only take place in a workplace environment conducive to it.

"It needs enlightened work practices and good leadership and management," Ms Lowe adds.

However, a survey of 15 EU countries found the UK was unique in having no publicly-funded institution or programme aimed at improving work organisation or job design. "It is a non-issue," Professor Keep suggests.

Ms Lowe's committee intends to try to influence matters for the better by commissioning research and action projects, possibly in conjunction with the SDS.

Professor Keep believes Scandinavian countries and initiatives such as the Welsh Assembly's workforce development programme show a way forward for Scotland. But Ms Lowe is wary of bolting on other people's models, particularly something as culturally determined as employment practices. "We've got to develop a Scottish solution while, of course, learning from elsewhere," she says.

She wants to see the SDS driving up the demand for skills and the funding council working with colleges and universities to supply them. "What we aim to have is more informed demand and a more responsive supply," she adds. "We are a long way down that road, but we can always be more ambitious."

On the side of choice

Janet Lowe, chair of the Scottish Funding Council's skills committee, is anxious not to give out the message that policy-makers are trying to shoehorn people into jobs and are denying them choices.

"In Scotland, I believe we have a good balance between learner-centred and employer-centred approaches. Our starting point is with the skills of the individual and then persuading employers to engage with these skills.

"The key is to drive up informed choice. If there are attractive jobs on offer, informed choice should emerge.

"I'm on the side of choice - choice for the individual and choice of provision - and making work and the workplace attractive enough for people to exercise that choice, in their own interests and in the interests of the economy."

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