COMMENT: Calling all businesses to jump on for training

Nick Reilly urges business people to get on board the government’s Learning and Skills Council, which aims to give industry a central role via local councils and a national network

I’ve lost count of the number of times colleagues and friends have complained about the difficulty they have recruiting people to engineering jobs with the qualifications and skills they need.

More than half our engineering companies have difficulties filling vacancies, and this is even worse in motor vehicles, aerospace and mechanical engineering. Machine setters, skilled sheet metal workers and technicians in electronics especially are in short supply.

Why are we in this situation? Because businesses do not influence how public funding is targeted on post-16 education and training.

Now, you have the opportunity to have hands-on influence on the decisions which will shape the future of your business. The government is radically altering the way it funds post-16 learning to give business a new, central role.

I have taken up the challenge of encouraging business people to `get on board’ because I believe it is vital to the success of the new system for articulate, committed business people to play a part in the decision-making process.

From April 2001, the new Learning and Skills Council will take on the current Training and Enterprise Council (Tec) network role in funding work-based training (which includes Modern Apprenticeships). The LSC will also be responsible for funding further education colleges and local authorities in respect of school sixth forms.

It will be a powerful public body with an annual budget of over £6bn. Most decisions will be made by its 47 local organisations, each of which will have boards made up of at least 40% business people.

Why should business get on board? The success of the council will depend on the business people who will sit on the national and local boards. We are looking for talented and motivated people from a wide variety of business backgrounds – and not just large employers: small businesses are the backbone of our economy and their voice must be heard too.

Learning, skills and labour markets are predominantly local; and most small and medium-sized companies recruit from local labour markets. Business people understand the needs of the local economy, what skills gaps there are, and what type of effective training is required.

As a board member, not only will you be playing a key role in improving the skills base of your local area, you will be taking decisions that can translate directly into improvements, and working with business people, locally and through the nationwide network.

One of the main problems in engineering is a shortage of people with relevant IT expertise. Electronics companies often lose electronic engineering employees to higher paying employers in computer and financial services. In contrast, general computing or IT specialists are not suitable for electronic engineering work.

In future, the LSC will be able to influence what training is provided in schools and colleges. Say, for example, that a survey reveals a shortage of IT skills in engineering in Tyne and Wear. The local LSC could then set up a task force to produce an action plan involving local businesses, colleges and private training providers. It would link to other local LSCs, and draw in the IT National Training Organisation to get advice on relevant qualifications and industry standards.

The LSC could pump-prime development of relevant training with local colleges. Engineering companies would be able to train existing employees to fill their own skilled vacancies, continuing to pay their wages plus a contribution to college fee costs.

Improving links between business and schools will also drive up the quality of young job applicants.

I urge people with a proven track record in business to play their part as board members, identify key local industry issues, and supply the drive and commitment to making learning work for us in the future.

Nick Reilly, chairman and managing director of Vauxhall, chairs a group of business people set up to encourage business involvement in the Learning and Skills Council. Information on how to apply is available at www.getonboard.org.uk, or telephone 0114 259 3716.

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