How many skills bodies does it take to
change a light bulb?

Michael Davis, Director of Strategy and Performance, UK Commission for Employment and Skills, finds out.

Type ‘electrician’ into the national database of qualifications and you’ll get a list of 84 accredited qualifications. These qualifications are offered by 11 different awarding bodies, in turn drawing from 292 different occupational standards under the heading of ‘electrical trades’. These standards have been developed by 13 different standard setting bodies or Sector Skills Councils. So far, so traceable. But then we turn to funding, inspection and auditing.  A conservative estimate is of a further 30 organisations involved here.

In total this means potentially over 50 different bodies to design, fund, assure and develop the competent changing of a light bulb.

A perennial gripe of employers is that the skills landscape is simply too big and too complicated for them to engage with.  And, looking at the sort of figures above, it’s hard to disagree.  The government, to its credit, has tried repeatedly to simplify the system and make it easier for employers to have real influence over the country’s training services.   
Many of these attempts, whilst well-intentioned, had a whiff of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic about them.  If you look at previous attempts to simplify the skills landscape they often failed to live up to billing because they overly focused on process and lacked the external stimulus for achieving real change. Strangely, the recession, whilst presenting real challenges for both the public and the private sector, has also provided an unparalleled opportunity to fundamentally simplify and improve skills services.  The government’s five billion pound efficiency programme means that it will no longer be possible to ‘solve’ a problem by creating a brand new organisation or initiative to sit on top of existing services.  Each part of the current labyrinthine system will need to work hard to prove the added value they provide, and will need to take on additional roles and responsibilities to extract maximum value from the taxpayer’s pound.

Enter stage left the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.  Established last year, one of the Commission’s five core tasks is to “Monitor the contribution and challenge the performance of each part of the UK employment and skills systems in meeting the needs of employers and individuals, and recommend improvements in policy, delivery and innovation”.

“Ambition 2020”, the UK Commission’s recent report on skills projections to 2020 shows that, despite unprecedented historic investment and improvement in skills we are at risk of falling behind our international competitors on productivity, employment and skills.   Add to this the impetus provided by the fact that the former Department for Innovation Universities and Skills committed to delivering £400 million in savings in 2010/11 as its commitment to the government’s £5 billion efficiency programme, and we can assume that the emphasis in policy over the coming years will be to ensure that the money invested in training by government, the individual and employers works together for maximum effect.  The role of the UK Commission is not to advocate simplification for its own sake but to ask: "How can we, as a nation, achieve more - and better - for less?"

That change is needed isn’t a matter for debate – pretty much everyone, including politicians of all colours, employers and the “skillsocracy” agree that simplification is needed and long overdue.  As ever, the devil will be in the detail – simplification will inevitably involve some difficult messages and some painful decisions.  But this time we’re not simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, because the inconvenient truth is that we will simply not be able to keep all the deckchairs on board.  We need to make sure that the considerable sums of money invested in training by government, its agencies, and employers and individuals works together to more jobs, more skills and greater opportunity and productivity for everyone.

We will be publishing an interim report on the simplification of employment and skills services in early autumn.  To assist in its preparation, we are asking all those with an interest in employment and skills to log on to our special website, www.commissionconsultation.com to view a short film discussing the many aspects of this project, along with associated documentation and submit a comment or information.