Strategic thinking for future skills

Planning for workforce changes pays off, says John McClelland

Picture: Getty

SOME 20 years ago, as the vice-president responsible for worldwide operations at IBM’s personal computer company, I was very pleased with work conducted in Scotland that identified future skills needs and issues for our company and for the ICT industry in general.

It was becoming clear that we needed to think more strategically if we were going to attract skilled staff. We needed different skills from those demanded in the past and moved hundreds of staff from hardware jobs into positions in software, services and consulting. Our enterprise agencies were supportive but the idea of industry being able to directly influence education provision was not mainstream and there were no mechanisms in place to complete the loop. Even senior officials at the Scottish Office at that time, while sympathetic, could not crack the code.

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I often recall this experience as I go about my work as chair at Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and when we are striving in partnership with others to make it easier for business leaders to obtain practical support in developing skills for their organisations.

Our day-to-day work includes ensuring that Scotland’s skills and learning system is better informed in responding to the needs of the economy and society. This is guided by our skills planning model. It’s not about creating an engineered economy nor is it another piece of computer software that will end our problems overnight. Its simple aim is to better align skills supply and demand. By collecting and analysing evidence of societal and industry needs, we can both create services for individuals that support people onto positive career paths and help businesses grow through better availability of a skilled workforce.

I know from personal experience that specific sectors have suffered from a lack of joined-up thinking about skills demands. That’s why we’re rolling out Skills Investment Plans (SIPs) across all the key sectors. Developed in consultation with enterprise bodies and stakeholders, each SIP highlights the key actions to be put into place to meet the future skills needs of the sector. SIPs have already been produced for the energy, financial services, food and drink and tourism sectors with many more planned in the coming months. There are also selected regional skills assessments which provide high quality and consistent source of evidence to inform investment geographically.

One of the benefits of having a national skills body is that it ensures the skills supply side is also informed by the same skills planning model.

It’s also important that we match skills demand with education provision and in that respect Scotland is well served by its tertiary education institutions – not only in pursuing excellence in teaching and research but also in becoming even more responsive to the current and future needs of industry. The work of the Scottish Funding Council in facilitating the availability of critical education provision identified in these investment plans has been pivotal thanks to the recently introduced institution by institution outcome agreements.

But we still need to have learners take up these opportunities and that’s why our careers advisers now aim to develop career management skills so individuals can secure fulfilling careers throughout their lives. We are doing this through a comprehensive service offering intensive one-to-one coaching, group sessions, meaningful work experience, industry contact and labour market information – all supported by a world-class web service, My World of Work.

We’ve also consulted extensively with employers about their preferences. When they interview prospective employees they don’t just want them to arrive with talent and ambition – they also want them to arrive with prior work experience.

That’s why SDS introduced the SQA-accredited Certificate of Work Readiness. Aimed at 16-19 year olds, it features 190 hours of work experience. Employer demand for this qualification is high, and recent figures show that more than 1,000 businesses throughout Scotland have demonstrated their support for it by providing work placements.

We’re not expecting overnight miracles but we do now have a model that effectively brings together the interests of business, society, individuals and education and training providers. It also means that employers, industry sectors and regions can know that their future skill needs can be addressed much more effectively than in the past.

• John McClelland CBE is chairman of Skills Development Scotland: