Friday, 24 August 2007

World Class Skills

One of the areas being focused on by Gordon Brown is the UK’s skills shortage. See for example, my comments on the Leitch Review, right at the bottom of this blog, which were written for Learning Light.

Although the Leitch Review predates Brown’s premiership:

  • It was Brown that set up the review (in itself a political statement given that the review says very little that is new – the skills shortfall and the need to match supply with demand go back at least as far as when I joined West London Training & Enterprise Council, or TEC, in 1993).
  • The government’s response to the review, World Class Skills, was delayed until Brown was in charge.
  • The creation of three new government departments (DIUS, DCSF and BERR) signals an intention to shake up the UK skills agenda.

    These three points suggest that Brown does see skills as a strategic priority for the UK. Skills also fit into what I noted in my last post is Brown’s broader focus on both competitiveness and social mobility.

    As Leitch noted, for developed countries who cannot compete on labour costs, competitiveness:
“Demands a more service-led and knowledge-driven economy and high-value-added industry. In the 21st century, our natural resource is our people – and their potential is both untapped and vast. Skills will unlock that potential”

The danger of not doing this will be, in Lord (Digby) Jones words, that China will have our lunch and India our dinner.

But increasing productivity depends mainly on higher rather than lower level skills. Both India and China have a long tail of unskilled workers, but enough highly educated and committed workers to provide their competitive success.

So Leitch’s and Brown’s focus on lower level skills is also, and possibly more significantly, about social fairness. Lack of skills is a major barrier to broader and wider participation in the workforce, and to providing equal opportunity across all communities.

One development in the Leitch review and Brown’s agenda is the prime role given to employers in delivering the right skills (ie being demand led). Leitch recommended that employers should be exhorted to training their employees, and that if exhortation fails, they should be forced. To me, this strikes a very appropriate balance between a US-style light-touch, free-market approach and a typical continental Europe response to legislate for mandatory training.

Working through the sector skills councils, government and employers how have to ensure that qualifications are fit for purpose, delivering both the competitive and social benefits we need. Meeting this challenge should not be beyond us.

A bigger challenge is likely to be changing the UK’s broader perspectives on skills, developing what Leitch referred to as a culture where everyone values learning. Here, the UK’s new skills campaign, “Our future – it’s in our hands” is a good start, but much more will be required that this. As Leitch notes, changing culture “will be a generational task, but a change in behaviour can start today”.