• How do we develop a workforce that is Fit for the Future?
  • How do we tackle the problems of ‘worklessness’?

Important questions that we have sought solutions to for most of my working life.

Broadly speaking we have two possible approaches.  We can  set up a committee of the great and the good, employers, politicians and civil servants and we can task them with collating evidence on labour markets, forecasting the future and identifying practical and affordable opportunities to intervene in the systems of education and worklessness that will make sure we develop the workforce that we need, when we need it.  This centralised approach puts power and resources in the hands of an Employment and Skills Board and sets them an impossible task.  It is the Soviet approach to planning tractor production.  It didn’t work for them.  And it hasn’t worked for us.

This approach results in a relatively small number of experiments (pilots) that are later rolled out.  It relies on a committee to accurately ‘read’ the future – to spot opportunities for job creation and then to exert an influence on the ‘production system’ quickly enough to make a positive difference.  This is usually done by setting targets, shifting resources and waiting to see how things unfold.  Strategies are typically set for perhaps half a decade and ‘refreshed’ annually – single-handedly tackling the worklessness agenda by employing a small army of civil servant and academics to collect data and produce reports.

Such boards end up being an ‘interesting’ balance between the voice of the private sector and democratic accountability.  In fact they usually become a stylized ‘war zones’ from which the private sector often retreats beaten into submission by public sector working practices.  Certainly the voice of the small business sector is rarely effectively heard.

Board strategies usually find a few ‘keys’ (NVQs, Diplomas, accredited in-house training, apprenticeships) to a few kingdoms (construction, health and beauty, tourism, call centres, and anything prefixed with ‘creative’, ‘digital’, ‘bio’, ‘high tech’ or ‘high growth’).  Aspirations and strengths of people are subordinated to the Board’s ideas about future skills needs and ‘opportunities’.  Conformity is valued over originality.  Learning ‘off piste’ becomes tricky.

Alternatively we could radically de-centralise and localise the process of thinking and planning about ‘fitness for the future’.  Instead of relying on an Employer Skills Boards to ‘make things right’ we could lay down a challenge to people to develop the skills and passions that they need to secure an economically viable future for themselves, to find what, for them, is ‘good work‘.  To  find their own contribution.   We could develop enterprising people supported in enterprising communities.  This would need schools and colleges to focus on the learner and their vision for their future rather than on the curriculum or qualification structures.

Such a decentralised, enterprising approach might:

  • enable many more informed brains to be brought to bear on the problem of fitness for the future – academics, industrialists and civil servants do not have a great track record in ‘workforce development’
  • enable people to explore ways of doing what they can do best – and not sub-optimising to conform with the ‘few keys to the few kingdoms’ identified by ‘The Board’
  • encourage the local community to support people in acquiring the skills, experience and work opportunities that they need to flourish economically and socially
  • support people to find learning experiences that help them to become the person that they want to be – rather than to conform with the ideal established by a fallible and distant Board
  • significantly increase the volume of learning experiments in the labour market and enable word of mouth to make sure that we develop a dynamic, flexible, responsive and self-reliant workforce

Perhaps these are not alternatives.  Perhaps we need to develop both strategic and responsive approaches to employment, skills and worklessness in the 21st century.

One thing I am sure of… establishing yet another Employment and  Skills Board (this time for the Leeds City Region) is unlikely to give us a major step forward.