Formation of a future workforce

November 19, 1999

Students must be made aware of the wider job market's changing needs and be given skills to compete, says Caroline Mager

Changes proposed in the white paper Learning to Succeed address fundamental weaknesses in the system and aim to create a system that meets the needs of the economy - to secure United Kingdom success in the knowledge-driven economy.

Some argue that this economic imperative is too instrumental. Such debates are sterile in the face of globalisation and technology.

Books such as Charles Leadbeater's Living on Thin Air paint an exhausting picture of the future - mobility and independence of capital and labour; the diminishing capacity of national governments to control or tax economic activity.

The citizen is likely to identify more closely with, and invest more willingly in, his or her local community than in the nation state. Securing the capacity of individuals to compete in this market must be a responsible use of public funding.

But how can responsiveness to the economy be achieved? Educaton secretary David Blunkett has emphasised the role of employers in the new world. When he announced the boundaries for the learning and skills council he led on the strengthened role of employers.

People with substantial recent business or commercial experience would form 40 per cent of the members of the council and its local arms, and will chair the national LSC and the majority of local LSCs. The system is "business-led" and "will deliver the high-quality skills and training that firms need".

While involvement of individual employers may be symbolic, it will certainly not be sufficient. Until recently, the majority of college governors were employers, and training and enterprise councils were in place to ensure that employers' needs were expressed.

The apparent failure of these measures indicates the difficulty and suggests that getting employers in positions of influence is not the solution. What else needs to be lined up to make this work?

First, we need to be sure about our analysis of the problem. The white paper argued that, while Further Education Funding Council funding has supported greater participation, funding was designed to meet the needs of colleges not the skills' needs of employers and individuals.

So, the funding system did not respond adequately to demand. However, FEFC money does follow learners - it is directly linked to their demands. Creating a system that follows demand is not a significant change.

Colleges are accused of turning out too many media, business studies and hairdressing students. But colleges have not coerced young people into taking these courses, they have responded to demand. If we think learners' choices are wrong, the problem is that the demand is ill-informed or not expressed.

Up-to-date factual information, including salary levels and prospects, available in a wide range of ways can empower learners. But other action will be needed.

The report Skills for the Information Age sets out a strategy for information technology and electronics that includes high-profile campaigns to tell learners about their importance.

Examples of employment sectors taking action and strategic responsibility are welcome. However long-term, it is only part of the solution. Many smaller firms often see education and training as part of the supply chain and will negotiate to get the best product at the best price.

To maximise our understanding of the learning market, we must consider the insights of those who are in daily contact with learners. The informed provider's contribution is not sufficiently acknowledged either in the white paper or in the employer-led reports.

Some interpretations of the planning powers of the LSCs suggest an annual planning and funding system leaving little room for responsiveness - many colleges fear increased local bureaucracy. As Mr Leadbeater suggests, "the regulations that wrap themselves like bindweed around the public sector" can strangle creativity and enterprise.

Caroline Mager is head of curriculum and qualifications at the Further Education Development Agency.


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