Let's Get Together: There Is No Point in Employers and Training Providers Blaming Each Other. They Need to Join Forces to Build a Skilled Workforce. Tim Jones Reports

Article excerpt

Kick-off began at St James's Park, the legendary home of Newcastle United Football Club, only this time it wasn't a game of footie, but a discussion on achieving excellence through skills and education. Football was fast becoming the role model for the skills agenda. Manchester City FC and the Football Foundation had both proved to be visionary examples of how to succeed in this area at two previous round-table discussions. At this event, the fourth regional debate jointly organised by the New Statesman and Fellows' Associates, it looked like football would again emerge with the trophy. Seven years ago, Newcastle United decided to invest [pounds sterling]1 m in a state-of-the-art training centre. According to the learning centre's manager, Phil McBride, it now welcomes 300 adults and 800 children through its doors every week.

The minister for skills, Ivan Lewis, praised organisations in the north-east as "trailblazers" when it came to innovation in skills. And there was definitely agreement among the participants in the round table that there were real examples of regional bodies working in partnership, and employers working with training providers and communities, to make a difference. Lewis said that the government was now transferring the region's employer training pilots to the national skills programme, and he also stressed that the previous day's white paper made it absolutely clear that colleges and training providers had to change. "We're going to re-engineer the system to be employer-responsive, but also, wherever the individual is now in terms of their skill level, we will support them to get wherever they need to go," Lewis said.

Brian Moore, managing director of Smart & Kleen Laundries, agreed that greater efficiency could be achieved in the current business climate only by a well-trained workforce--something he had learned from his own experience. Moore left school at 17 to work in the mining industry and, collecting a business studies degree, an MQB certificate in electrical engineering and two HNDs on the way, founded his company in 1998. Smart & Kleen has since received training and support from Newcastle College to help employees develop literacy and numeracy skills--yet Moore admits that "aiming for excellence seems simple, but is very difficult to achieve".

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The debate did seem to be going round in circles for a while: employers were impatient with education and training providers for their perceived lack of responsiveness, while training providers, for their part, felt that some employers were being unreasonable in their expectations. "There's a kind of collision between flexibility at the demand end and a lack of flexibility at the supply end," explained Steve Rankin, director of CBI North-East. However, he applauded the Newcastle United learning centre initiative, describing it as "an employer-led, publicly funded campaign to raise educational aspirations in the region". And Kevin Rowan, the TUC's northern regional secretary, was hugely optimistic about the engagement of employers. "Building on the success in the north-east is the right way forward," he said.

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Pat Ritchie, strategy and development director for the regional development agency One NorthEast, said that the RDA had set up discussions with employers which had shaped the direction of the regional skills partnership. She urged people to develop that dialogue with employers rather than expect a big supply-side change all at once.

Lewis believed that employers should not be too impatient. "It's too soon for employers to see the changes they are asking for," he said. "The maximum age of a child who's been through our literacy and numeracy strategy is 14, and none of them is in the workplace yet."

But Geoff Spuhler, from the Walkers Snack Foods learning centre, did not agree. "I can see the benefits already. We're a large employer and 80 per cent of our courses are Skills for Life. …