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Michael Davis, the former Chairman of Leicester College and new Chief Executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills explains how his organisation is reforming and refocusing to meet the challenges ahead.

One of the things I enjoyed most about my time as a college chairman was meeting new people.  I had the privilege of working with inspirational leaders, talented teachers and other dedicated staff.   Those that I admired most were understated, quietly confident and had an amazing ability to lean into endless waves of change instigated by a 'system' that has been historically centralising in its tendencies.

It was with this approach in mind that I accepted the position of Chief Executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills earlier this year.  And in the last six months the UK Commission has quietly but confidently undergone its own transformation.

With a more sharply-focused remit – and tighter public purse strings – we have been tasked with "maximising UK skills to achieve enterprise, sustainable growth and job creation."  Central to this is making and promoting the case for greater business commitment to collective action on skills, including, for example, engaging more employers in Apprenticeships.

An important part of this new remit is a move away from being a top-down advisory body to government to becoming a true vehicle for sustainable economic growth and social partnership.  This new 'work with' approach is exemplified and embodied by our Chairman, Charlie Mayfield – the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership.  Under his strategic leadership the UK Commission is reforming and refocusing around four key priorities:

1.  Making and winning the economic argument for greater employer investment in skills

2.  Enhancing the value and accessibility of vocational and technical training, particularly Apprenticeships

3.  Galvanising industry sectors to improve the skills and productivity of their workforce

4.  Maximising the number of jobs available for unemployed people, particularly those who are young, or furthest from securing employment.

Our credibility and influence as an organisation rests on the calibre of our Commissioners, and I was delighted when last month Vince Cable announced that our already strong line-up of fifteen commissioners would be strengthened by a further nine appointments, including a College principal.  They are:

·         Tony Lau-Walker, Chief Executive Officer, Eastleigh College

·         Professor John Coyne, Vice-Chancellor, University of Derby

·         Lucy Adams, Director of Business Operations, BBC

·         John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI

·         David Fairhurst, Chief People Officer, McDonald's Europe

·         Dr Deirdre Hughes, Lead Consultant, European Lifelong Guidance Policy Network

·         Trevor Matthews, CEO Aviva UK

·         Seyi Obakin, Chief Executive, Centrepoint

·         Sean Taggart, Owner and Chief Executive, The Albatross Group

Together, our 24 Commissioners cover large and small employers, trade unions and the third sector as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Our Commissioners are far from being figureheads, albeit high-profile ones.  They give generously of their time and expertise, and are directly responsible for ensuring each of our priority outcomes.  For example, in apprenticeships and vocational training, one of our Commissioners, Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director Programmes and Support at BAE Systems, has been advising ministers on the expansion of Higher Level Apprenticeships.  Reforming the nature of our relationships with Commissioners, to make sure the organisation is truly Commissioner-led, is at the heart of everything we do.

Other relationships are being reformed too.  Despite our running costs reducing by 25% to date, we are investing significant amounts of money in employer-led products, services or solutions. For example, our Growth and Innovation Fund, which we run in collaboration with the Skills Funding Agency and National Apprenticeship Service and colleagues from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently recommended an investment of £14 million in 15 employer-led propositions.  More broadly, from next April, our work with Sector Skills Councils moves from a model that replaces grant funding with a fully contestable funding model, where investment is made in proposals that demonstrate the strongest potential for impact in terms of enterprise, jobs and growth.

This gives enormous potential for colleges and other providers to work together with employers to create sustainable skills solutions.  It is undoubtedly a challenging agenda, and I know that within the FE sector, the only constant is change.  But I also know that the sector lies at the heart of transforming the way skills are demanded, developed and delivered in the UK.  The opportunities are huge, and so is the prize.

Michael Davis is chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a non-departmental public body providing strategic leadership on skills and employment issues in the four nations of the UK

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