The FE sector will only thrive if it hitches its fortunes to the training needs of small businesses, the conference was told by a leading training specialist and a senior businessman. But Evelyn McCann, head of skills development at Scottish Enterprise, suggested colleges could be some way off target in responding to the needs of companies which she said represented virtually the whole of Scottish business (98 per cent employed fewer than 100 people).
Sir Robert Easton, the chairman of Yarrow Shipbuilders and GEC Scotland, said small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would emerge as the key engines of the Scottish economy. "What are you doing to attract them?" he asked.
The answer appears to be not a lot, according to Ms McCann. A forthcoming Scottish Enterprise report on the management development of small companies will show that "there is a major gap between education and training and the needs of SMEs," she said. "They are willing to invest in education and training if it is bespoke and reflects individual needs. What they don't want is to come along to a college and sit in a class of 12 talking about business and management development. They want colleges to find out more about them and their needs, and they want to do it through information technology, not day release or evening class."
The Scottish Enterprise report reveals typical expenditure by a small business on management development of between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 10,000; if only 30 per cent of companies spend Pounds 10,000, that would generate Pounds 300 million.
"It's a huge market and we haven't even begun to tap into it," Ms McCann said.
Another report on labour market trends to be published shortly, commissioned by Scottish Enterprise from Warwick and Glasgow universities, will also contain some stark and uncomfortable messages for FE. Ms McCann said the emergence of the "flexible firm" in which short-term working becomes more common would pressurise the whole pattern of education and training.
She added: "The effect will be less involvement in education and training by those short-term workers who, because of job insecurity and lack of loyalty perhaps to the workplace, may not have the motivation or the financial resources to participate.
"The evidence is that those in permanent employment or on longer-term contracts are getting more educated and trained, but that is being targeted on an increasingly smaller proportion of the workforce. If we don't improve the skills of those on part-time and short-term contracts, we will increasingly marginalise a potentially low-skilled and therefore low-paid workforce. "
Ms McCann said the training world had yet to take account of these changes and was "still geared to producing 500 bricklayers, 400 engineers and so on". Guidance counselling also had to improve to ensure school leavers were confronted with the reality that there was no "job for life", and that there would be a reduction in the number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.
The new jobs which would be available, according to the GlasgowWarwick research, would be in the professional field, in research and development, or in corporate rather than supervisory management, and personal and protective services.