Over the past two decades governments of all hues have driven reform and expansion of the country’s vocational skills system, with some notable successes. But the fact is we’ve become less competitive globally on skills, and for many employers the ‘system’ is just too complex.
Within this landscape, though, there are examples of excellence. In pretty much every case the defining characteristic is leadership from the employer, often in partnership with providers and other stakeholders, including trades unions. Where skills interventions haven’t worked it’s usually because the government has ended up in the lead, incentivising employers to join government schemes. Too often, when the incentive ceases, so does the training.
So how can we create a sustainable alternative? The answer lies in recognising where we are already getting this right and understanding why that is. Commissioners, including leaders of businesses large and small, union, university, college and third sector leaders from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have concluded that we need to take determined steps to encourage more employer ownership of this vital contributor to the future growth and economic renewal of the UK.
To set us on that path we need to change the way the system works. We must create more space and encouragement for employers to work within their supply chains, business clusters and with unions, colleges and training providers to develop the skills they need. The most powerful way to do this is to change the way funds flow through the system, and to place the responsibility and reward for investment more directly with employers.
I am pleased that the government has responded so positively to our advice, and agreed to commit up to £250m over the next two years to pilot this new direction. This will enable forward thinking employers, colleges and training providers to come forward with new approaches that are more effective in improving the skills and potential of new recruits and existing employees. We hope this pilot will work with the grain of industry sectors, reaching small and medium sized companies through the natural operation of the supply chain.
There is, of course, much work to be done to ensure this pilot is a success and that we learn from it. Both outcomes are important, not just to improve the competitiveness of the sectors and businesses they touch, but to ensure we develop a sustainable approach to building vocational skills. We need to restore the growth and prosperity of the economy, and developing the potential of our people is a key part of that process.
Charlie Mayfield is chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills