David Grailey is chief executive of NCFE, the national awarding organisation

I was asked recently if vocational qualifications were now back in fashion. From qualification provider NCFE’s point of view, they are certainly increasing in popularity again and the current economic climate presents a compelling case for their continued growth in the next few years.

In fact, saying they are in "fashion" doesn’t quite do them justice – this is not just some fad that will drop out of the limelight again on a whim. Vocational qualifications, and in particular NVQs, are back in the spotlight for a far better and infinitely more solid reason – they are able to meet the specific needs of the job market in tough times.

The current financial climate has changed the business world – principally industry and commerce – but all sectors are feeling the knock-on effects. The threats are clear and present: A global shortage of credit and cash flow means employers everywhere are not feeling a pinch as much as a massive crush.

There is an undoubted threat to the further education sector, namely the risk that training budgets will be among the first things out the window as employers aim to reduce outgoings as much as possible.

I would, naturally, urge employers to continue to put their faith in training and workforce development and, currently, it seems like this is happening.

When times are tough, businesses want the best-trained, most efficient and motivated staff around them: Maintaining a commitment to developing the workforce is an excellent way of making this happen.

A continued commitment to training all workers is essential – the benefits of workforce development have been well documented. It helps improve morale, productivity and loyalty.

However, responsibility for training does not lie solely with employers and they need all the help and support they can get from the education sector, which must ensure that the products and qualifications available perfectly suit today’s market. This is why vocational qualifications have become so relevant again.

The job market is now flooded with workers who are made redundant – it seems as if sweeping job cuts are being announced on a daily basis at the moment and as a result the jobs and training sector now faces a huge challenge.

The redundant workers in many cases are very skilled – but it may be that their skills are not what the UK workplace currently requires. Luckily, it’s not a scene that the UK is unaccustomed to dealing with. The British automotive industry, for example, has a proud history but has spent the past ten years facing downsizing across the board as it faced increased competition from a global market.

The reasons behind the current crisis may be different, this time it’s a global recession rather than competition from overseas that’s causing the problems, but the challenges are the same. Workers must be re-skilled to suit the jobs that are available and while, perhaps, no sector is experiencing growth right now, that won’t always be the case. We should use this as an opportunity to provide the workforce with the skills that tomorrow’s market will demand – identify the future growth areas and cater to meet their needs.

In the short-term, though, we have a duty to help people find jobs, keep their jobs and to help boost productivity for employers. Individuals who have mortgages to pay cannot afford to rest on their laurels – they will be looking to get back into work as soon as possible. Their prospects can only be increased if they have a relevant, vocational qualification under their belts. Time is of the essence and the education sector must be geared up to cope with this renewed demand.

While those that need support most urgently will of course get the more immediate attention, the rest cannot be ignored. Those still in jobs must be given the support and development opportunities that they would be if the economy was thriving.

Far from seeing any of this as a threat, the education sector needs to seize the opportunity. Our sector is in a position to help the flailing economy – not only by providing the correct support to employers but also to individuals. I’m not for a second suggesting that we have a miracle cure, but training and education can help provide a platform for recovery.

It’s a well-known phrase that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That will only be true of the recession if we work together to provide the right solutions for employers and employees. If the UK is to emerge from the recession as a stronger, more flexible nation then we have to take action now.

NCFE, for one, is ready to play its part: We are geared up to offer the NVQs that will help employers up-skill or re-skill their workforces; our commitment to customer service and our ability to offer a quick turn-around on qualifications means education and training providers can go to employers with total solutions even when up against tight deadlines.

NVQs may not be the latest idea on the market but they are proven to work and could well be a small part of the answer that everyone is looking for.

David Grailey, chief executive of qualification provider NCFE


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