In 2004 I left the hospitality industry in which I had worked for many years to enter the world of work based learning, a field that was unfamiliar to me. Hospitality is a tough business. It requires people with skill, who are prepared to work unsocial hours and who have the ability to innovate and create. It constantly seeks talent, in an environment in which skills are at a premium.
The industry has for many years struggled with the challenge of addressing the skills gap. It has become increasingly dependent on a labour force recruited from overseas, and with the uncertainty of Brexit this solution can only be temporary. These issues it shares with many important industries, all of which are vital to the future success of our economy and the prosperity of the nation. The skills shortage continues to be one of the biggest concerns for employers. UK productivity levels remain stubbornly low. The situation is unsustainable.
When I made the career change I was amazed at how little specific knowledge I had of the Skills and Employability sector, and the support available from Government sponsored schemes. I and my former colleagues had been largely unaware of the wealth of recruitment and skills development support available to employers. To put it simply, it never came across my desk and I doubt that I was the exception.
It is little wonder therefore that until quite recently, many employers have had little real engagement with the skills agenda. For years, Government has tried to extract a contribution from employers with little success, suggesting that skills qualifications have been viewed with some scepticism. Many are still struggling with the implications of the Apprenticeship levy and what it means to them. Until recently, a third of UK employers that are eligible to pay the levy were not aware of its existence, and nearly a quarter of heads of apprenticeships are still not fully familiar with the new system.
So now the landscape has changed. Employers are having to fund Apprenticeship programmes and easy access of foreign skilled labour is set to diminish. This puts Employability, Skills and employer engagement at the heart of the economic agenda.
The FE sector has worked incredibly hard to drive the success of the skills agenda, and the contribution of the Employability industry to the success of the Work Programme has been nothing short of outstanding. Both sectors deserve greater recognition for the incredible work that they do, for their contribution, for the standards that they achieve and for the professionalism that they demonstrate.
Employability and Skills providers must now reflect on how this can be messaged to industry leaders. We must do more to celebrate our achievements and to highlight the contribution made. We must reinforce the professionalism of the sectors and help employers understand that the work that is done is technically complex, demanding, highly skilled and most importantly that it adds value. The IEP and the Chartered Institution for Further Education were established to do just this.
Many believe that Skills and Employability are inextricably linked, but they are quite different disciplines. Some organisations are now becoming highly adept at working within both sectors. They are doing this by focussing on the challenges faced by employers, listening carefully to their organisational development needs and using their expertise to assist in the delivery of comprehensive strategies, which go beyond meeting the objectives of government initiatives. To do this they have developed networks of differing expertise which can provide a complete package of support. This has to be our thinking for the future.
Employers are now firmly in the driving seat but lack sufficient information concerning the support available to them. Their success firstly depends on their ability to identify and recruit well prepared work ready candidates and secondly to create the skills development programmes necessary to create a competitive work force. Attributes that the sectors have in abundance. Industry needs to be better informed of what is on offer. Experience tells me that many employers have little or no understanding of our complex work, and how it can support them, so the challenge for all of us is to ensure that industry is fully engaged, in a clear and concise manner that reflects demand.
The time to take advantage of this could not be better. It presents a great opportunity. If the skills of our respective sectors can be effectively promoted to business and industry we have the opportunity to play one of the most important social and economic roles in more than a generation.
Dan Wright MIEP, CEO The Chartered Institution for Further Education