We need leaders to transform skills
That was the main conclusion of the recent "Skills for Business Network" convention - the annual gathering of the new employer-led network of skills councils These demands came hot on the heels of a ministerial announcement to provide a further pound;500,000 support to the fledgling councils, which will shape training in each industrial sector as they try to tackle the woeful state of skills in the British workforce.
This investment is in addition to pound;135 million already earmarked to build a network of up to 23 skills councils by spring 2004.
At a time when the Sector Skills Development Agency has been widely criticised for being too slow in establishing the councils, the continued strong backing of ministers is vital. Not least because a lot of the criticism is unfair, misguided and borne out of a general ignorance of the purpose of SSCs and the excellent work that has been carried out since June 2001.
People need to be reminded of why SSCs were created. They also need to remember that the idea is that employers are invited, not forced, to get involved.
Since the demise of the levy-raising industrial training boards in the early 1980s, employers have largely been left to decide for themselves where, when and how many workers get training. There has been very little co-ordination and planning. Where employers did come together it was in ad-hoc industry bodies ranging from occupational standards councils to the former 73 national training organisations, which the sector council will replace.
The NTOs were so weak as a network that only one in five had any contact with small employers, and less than a third of British industry had even heard of them never mind used them.
The primary purpose of the new sector skills councils is to get influential employers behind the national drive to raise skills. This does not mean they will get more of limited public funds to train workers but they will, through the new councils, influence how resources to train are deployed.
Indeed, the Learning and Skills Council is already developing sector-based strategies, for example in the design and delivery of centres of vocational excellence.
The critical challenge in moving forward is for the councils to exert far greater influence over the estimated pound;23 billion per annum that employers say they spend on skills. Surveys show that too much employer-funded activity does little to improve the UK's overall productivity and skills record.
That is why so much is expected of new employer "sector skills agreements" promised in the Government's new skills strategy. If these agreements are to have any real teeth they will have to spell out what the employer contribution and role will be as well as what is expected of public agencies.
The key to winning the hearts and minds of businesses lies in the quality of leadership at the new councils. Ther is a great deal of work to be done.
People who previously ran second-rate NTOs are now setting up SSCs. There is little new blood. And despite all the rhetoric of business leadership, the network has yet to attract one household name or senior captain of industry.
Above all, the new councils need to break out of a mindset that seeks simply to screw as much public cash as possible out of the Treasury. That was the NTO agenda. And while the Sector Skills Development Agency needs to be given time to demonstrate that it can put in place a high-quality network, it too might focus more on providing better leadership of the councils themselves. In the end, sector skills councils will stand or fall by how much extra cash they raise for training from employers and how much they help to improve UK business performance.
Tom Bewick was the author of the original sector skills council policy and co-led the government team that set up the Sector Skills Development Agency. He writes in a personal capacity