Stark warning that Scotland will be 'short of people, not jobs' in the future
A warning was issued last week that Scotland could face a skills crisis in the next few years if it did not respond to population changes.
Willy Roe, chair of Skills Development Scotland, says the evidence points convincingly to the fact that, despite the economic downturn, "Scotland is going to be short of people, not short of jobs". This is because the population is not going to grow and will also age significantly.
At the same time, Mr Roe told the biennial UK conference of the Workers' Educational Association in Glasgow, there will be changes in the workplace and the wider economy which make it imperative for people to embrace "not just second chance learning, but constant learning".
An example of the challenge was the construction industry which has told him that it will move from being low-carbon to "no carbon" from 2016, together with other changes such as building houses in factory environments and assembling them on site. A consequence of this is that there will be no need for labourers, so unskilled construction jobs will disappear.
But Mr Roe cautioned against simply adding further qualifications as a way of responding to these problems. "We can do that till the cows come home," he said, "but it will do little for productivity or wealth-creation." This was because of the "conundrum" that, while Scotland had a highly-skilled population, it did not make effective use of these existing skills.
So critical is the issue of "skills utilisation" that high-powered investigations are taking place, involving SDS, the Scottish Government, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and the Scottish Funding Council.
He said an "emerging conclusion" from this work, rather than a final one, was that management was to blame: "The problem doesn't seem to be that people lack the skills or the will. A lot of it is down to inadequate leadership in many companies which do not create the conditions that will allow people to work to their full potential."
Part of the answer lay not just in lifelong learning, but early learning in particular. He praised the work of the WEA in family learning, getting young people to develop and achieve, as "staggeringly important". In partnership with others, the association runs a 10-week course, "Making the Most of Children's Development and Learning", aimed at families with children from birth to age five. It is accredited by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
Mr Roe said public health specialists were placing increasing importance on the well-being of children in the very earliest stages, going so far as to suggest that this would be the next "major breakthrough" in public health. In particular, they are focusing on the period from six months before birth to the two years afterwards - the critical years when, as he put it, people become "hard-wired to abuse".
These complex, inter-related issues would also change the way SDS went about its business. The agency will shortly unveil a strategy based on putting "the voice of the learner" centre stage. It will be demand-led, not supply-led, and technology will allow it to happen, using interactive processes and social networking. "There has been nothing quite like it in Scotland before," he claimed.
Addressing the same conference, Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop went out of her way to support learning for its own sake. She was responding to Fiona Forsyth of Rosemount Lifelong Learning, who said many of the organisations partnering the WEA were under threat of closure because of the increasing emphasis on "employability" in course funding.
Ms Hyslop said she would make no apology for that, but it did not mean that community learning and development should be neglected. Its importance was enshrined in a joint agreement between the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.