Article - Issue 32, September 2007

World Class Skills

Philip Whiteman

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In response to the 2006 Leitch Report, the Government has just published World Class Skills, an implementation plan of the report’s recommendations to help over four million people improve their skills and thus make Britain’s workforce one of the most skilled in the world by 2020. Philip Whiteman, Chief Executive of SEMTA, the sector skills council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies explains the background to the plan.

Semta logo

Semta logo

The UK has increasingly to compete for trade with countries like Brazil, Russia, China and India. These countries not only have the advantages of low labour costs and cheap natural resources, but are also producing record numbers of graduate engineers to fuel their huge technological and economic growth.

Meanwhile, the UK’s output of engineers has remained static for more than a decade. Every year, Britain adds 75,000 engineers and computer scientists, India and China together add half a million.

Advancement aims

The Government’s World Class Skills plan sets targets to improve the UK’s competitiveness through skills improvement. These include:

  • more than 40% of adults gaining a higher education qualification (level 4* and above) – up from 29% in 2005;

  • 1.9 million additional level 3 attainments (equivalent to two A levels) and doubling the number of apprenticeships to 500,000 a year;

  • more than 90% of adults qualified to at least level 2 (equivalent to five good GCSEs) – increased from 69% in 2005;

  • and 95% of adults to achieve basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy (up from 85% and 79% respectively in 2005).

So, what is the World Class Skills plan likely to mean in engineering, manufacturing and science, where higher level skills are needed based on trends for higher value goods and services and more advanced working practices?

*see panel titled ‘Qualifications Explained’

Skills gaps

To understand the implications and opportunities, we first need to study the skills needs of our sector. SEMTA, the sector skills council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, conducted a labour market survey in 2007 for engineering. This survey revealed that 18% of companies are experiencing a skills gap between the capabilities of their current workforce and their business objectives.

The industrial sectors experiencing the most significant problems are marine (27% of skills gaps reported) and motor vehicle manufacturing (22% of skills gaps). World Class Skills recommends employer-led solutions such as Sector Skills Agreements, which are in place for these two critical sub-sectors. These agreements have identified the specific needs of employers, most suitable training or development provision, best practice, and available funding – this is especially useful in engineering and science where 91% of businesses have fewer than 50 employees and don’t necessarily have the resource to tackle such activity on their own.

Train to Gain

The plan also promotes demand-led funding by routing public funding of vocational skills through ‘Train to Gain’ (a new service to help businesses get the training they need to succeed) and new ‘Skills Accounts’ (based on individual’s needs). Government investment in Train to Gain alone will reach £900 million by 2010/11.

Employers can access Train to Gain through the government’s recently launched ‘Skills Pledge’. This requires companies who sign up to deliver a training plan that meets their business objectives and takes employees to a first Level 2 qualification. Companies who make the Train to Gain Pledge receive free access to a scheme advisor. Furthermore, they can be assured that training will be effective in meeting business needs, as under the plan qualifications (including foundation degrees) they will only get funding if approved by sector skills councils.

However the Pledge, Train to Gain and Skills Accounts will not provide all the answers for the sector, as they focus, in the first instance, on lower level qualifications and skills.

Graduates needed

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s own report, Educating Engineers for the 21st Century, identifies the need for more graduate engineers, and an overhaul of university courses to include more problem solving and practical workplace skills, supported by a funding increase of at least 50%. The World Class Skills plan aims to add a total of 5,000 university places in 2008/9, co-funded with employers.

SEMTA’s own engineering sectors research also points to 70% of skills gaps being among higher level technical and engineering skills or craft, operator and technician occupations. Only 12% are in the personal skills or basic maths, English and Information and Communications Technology skills where much of the Government’s plan is focused.

World Class Skills does meet some of the higher level skills needs of engineering as the Government intends to fund free training for 19 to 25 year olds to achieve their first level 3 qualification. It is worth noting that 70% of our 2020 workforce is already of working age now.

Skills Academy

It remains to be seen how much more public funding there will be to support the higher level targets and to what extent ‘demand-led’ will mean ‘employer-funded’. It could well mean a partnership approach, like that behind the new National Skills Academy for Manufacturing, which will also drive up higher level skills and is one of the approaches recommended by the government to involve employers in skills improvement.

The National Skills Academy is supported by Government, the Learning and Skills Council, Regional Development Agencies and backed by top engineering companies, and has been created as a centre of excellence to tackle the skills priorities set out in the Sector Skills Agreements. This includes technical, productivity and leadership skills.

Spending on training

There has already been sniping in the media by those who question the link between skills and prosperity, or claim higher qualifications do not bring the higher salaries government claims, but the engineering sector is usually acknowledged as an exception. There are also those who say taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund what employers should already be doing. The real point should be that for the success of UK PLC we need to ensure the Government’s annual £3 billion and business’s £33 billion skills investment is spent wisely.

However, the pressure on businesses to increase investment and involvement means more than ever that we need a coordinated approach through SEMTA. SEMTA must ensure that the Government understands the critical role of the engineering and science sectors in enabling the UK to compete globally and to tackle issues such as climate change and energy and water supply for an expanding population.

Biography: Philip Whiteman

Philip Whiteman is the Chief Executive of SEMTA, the sector skills council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies which represents around 76,000 companies, employing two million people in the UK and contributing 33% to the UK's exports. The role of a sector skills council is to support productivity and competitiveness in their sector by ensuring relevant skills provision. He holds a BSC (Hons) degree in chemistry, is qualified as a chartered accountant, and joined SEMTA in 1991 as finance director.

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