ANOTHER major challenge for FE colleges and other training agencies has emerged in the past week in the improbable form of the Government's tourism strategy.
The Scottish Executive, conscious of tourism's economic potential as a pound;2.5 billion industry, wants to put skills development at the heart of the strategy in one of the most far-reaching interventions in a single occupational sector in recent years.
Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, put his usual ambitious spin on the plans at a launch symbolically staged in Edinburgh's Dynamic Earth attraction. "I want a modern, focused, skilled and enterprising industry which embraces a culture of lifelong learning," Mr McLeish said.
Improving the much-criticised service which Scotland offers visitors partly through staff training will be a key objective, and pound;6 million will be ploughed in over three years as part of an overall pound;11 million investment package.
A new body to be called Tourism Skills will replace Tourism Training Scotland which has put more than 50,000 people through a variety of courses.
Despite "substantial progress", the Executive's strategy document believes "there is still not enough attention paid to skills development within individual tourism businesses. Managers may not be keeping their own skills up to date, which is particularly important when so much is changing in the industry."
Liz Buchanan of TTS gave the proposals a warm welcome. "The strategy sets the industry in the right direction," she said. "The key challenge now will be for the public and private sectors to pull together to deliver it."
The new organisation will not be free from the Executive's all-
encompassing preoccupation with targets which, in the familiar mantra, are described as "tough but achievable".
These include the achievement of 1,000 modern apprenticeships by 2003 - part of he general drive for 20,000 modern apprenticeships by 2002.
Tourism Skills also has a target of setting up 5,000 individual learning accounts and promoting the Investors in People award.
The new body will be asked to work with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, colleges and universities to establish "centres of training excellence". Borders College and Napier University are already believed to have a school of tourism studies under active consideration.
The Government's moves have been broadly welcomed. Genevieve McCabe, programme team leader in travel, tourism and marketing at Edinburgh's Telford College, says: "We can put people into training and run courses tailor-made for specific contexts.
"But the mismatch comes when students go out and expect to find well-paid jobs. The key problem in tourism is that it is such a wide combination of the public and private sectors and ranges from 'Britannia' to the local village museum. We don't want to be seen knocking the industry but there is a real image problem of low pay.
"The idea of modern apprenticeships is fine. But to take a course that can last four to five years and come out earning pound;11-12,000 to work under a temperamental head chef? I think not."
The emphasis on training was none the less welcomed by MSPs during the debate which followed. John Swinney, the SNP's deputy leader, who chairs the enterprise and lifelong learning committee which has been conducting its own tourism inquiry, said: "At the moment many training programmes are inadequate. Good training is often undermined by bad practice by employers."
But he added that trainees had to have the incentive of well-paid employment.
David Mundell, a Conservative spokesman, stressed the importance of encouraging school pupils to consider jobs in tourism and backed the need for a proper career structure.
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