Jim Carley is Managing Director of Carley Consult Ltd

The OECD's Programme on Local Economic and Employment Development, or LEED as it is better known, is perhaps not an initiative which is front and centre in the minds of the FE and work based learning sector. According to its website, its mission is "to contribute to the creation of more and better quality jobs through more effective policy implementation, innovative practices, stronger capacities and integrated strategies at the local level".

It is perhaps therefore not surprising that LEED held its 11th annual forum in Manchester last month, a city synonymous with the skills and devolution agenda, attracting delegates from 38 different countries. This was the first time that LEED had held its forum in the UK.

While apprenticeships had once fallen out of favour in many OECD countries, they are now enjoying renewed attention, not least in the UK. Not only, therefore, did the LEED forum present an opportunity for the UK to learn from the experiences of other OECD countries, for which there was plenty to draw upon, it also provided an opportunity for the UK to showcase how we too are shaping best practice within Apprenticeships.

Take, for example, the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service (GMFRS), who hosted an on-site workshop for a group of forum delegates at its dedicated Training Centre. With plans to achieve three million new Apprenticeships in the current Parliament, it will be public sector employers like GMFRS who will be integral to the achievement of this target. Youth Engagement Programmes, including volunteering schemes, Traineeships and Apprenticeships, pioneered by GMFRS have served two objectives. On one hand they have provided a route of engagement with the Fire Service to help young people develop personal skills and take pride in their communities. On the other, in the face of austerity recruitment freezes, these schemes have equally provided a means to develop an alternate future talent pool of skilled young people.

Through a collaboration with Manchester College and other employers, GMFRS have become involved in the Apprenticeship Trailblazers, developing a new standard for Business Fire Safety Advisors apprentices. As much as a quality Apprenticeship in its own right, the standard is also positioned as an effective induction to becoming a fully-fledged Firefighter. With the freeze on recruitment of Firefighters in Manchester about to be lifted, GMFRS will first and foremost be looking to its pre-skilled alumna from its Youth Engagement Programmes to fill these vacancies.

Wider issues debated by the forum included the challenge of the "hollowing out" of the labour market, and the need to apply so called skills utilisation techniques to improve employment opportunities for low-skilled / low-paid workers. UKCES claim that nearly half of UK employers have staff whose skills aren't being fully utilised. There is, however, a genuine dilemma for employers with an incentive to reduce costs by "de-skilling" processes, balancing this against a need for robust skills strategies which equally enhance productivity.

So plenty of issues, lots of debate, albeit not too many easy answers. Perhaps though what the OECD LEED forum has most importantly illustrated is that we can learn a lot more from our international counterparts, and help them too learn a lot more from us.

Jim Carley is Managing Director of Carley Consult Ltd, a specialist business development agency supporting the skills and employability sectors

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