Time for a National Skills Academy: Mick Jackson

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The government is keen to introduce National Skills Academies across the English skills landscape. The initiative was introduced in 2006 and around 12 have been approved to date in three tranches covering sectors as widespread as construction, financial services and food manufacturing.

Skills academies can mean many different things to different sectors. For some, it means the development of new further education colleges to meet a particular need. For others such as the construction academy it means the development of temporary facilities that meet particular needs on individual building sites.

What makes all of these successful bids stand out is that they were backed by considerable, multi-million pound investments from individual employers to underpin the academy. Household names such as Philip Green have very visibly backed the schemes ‘with their own money’ and James Dyson is attempting to follow suit.

As you might expect, the nature of logistics and its wide reach across UK plc makes a single ‘solution’ difficult to achieve and you will probably also not be surprised to find that a single philanthropic (for whatever motive) multi-million pound donation to the cause has not emerged from a sector which bemoans small margins and is facing the most challenging operating environment that most have ever experienced.

What also makes the logistics National Skills Academy different to many of the others is that it fulfils a sector-wide need. It is not something that is needed by individual companies, its need is across the sector, for the sector – a very difficult concept to raise funds for.

However, all of our research and consultation points to the dual demands from employers of all sizes across the sector:

l Give us qualifications and training programmes that are relevant to our operations and;

l Make them available in a consistent, clear, easily accessible and high quality format across the UK.

So the need is definitely there. We are building the infrastructure to allow a National Skills Academy to be made up of a network of regional academies around England each sitting at the centre of a collaborative network of high quality training centres. These are underway as pilots in the North West and South West regions and will provide a single ‘one stop shop’ point of contact for anybody wanting to source training and development for anything to do with logistics in each region.

A very big benefit to the sector of this approach is that it makes professional development of staff available and easily accessible to smaller employers who do not enjoy the HR and training support that large companies have. For example, the National Academy will establish a mentoring and coaching facility ‘in each region and eventually each town’ along the lines of the Open University tutor network to allow individuals from small employers to get the benefits of networking with other individuals undergoing the same training from other companies is the area. This will go some way to evening out the playing field when it comes to staff development.

This is something that the sector needs but is difficult to raise single large donations for and this is a measure that the government puts great stock by.

So what is the situation at the time of writing? Where’s the guesswork and crystal ball gazing? Well, we put in our bid at the beginning of August, supported in principle by a number of employers and very visibly by the Department for Transport. We have been shortlisted with an imaginative bid and we are due, in early September to appear before a selection panel with our lead employers fielding what will undoubtedly be some very tough questions.

So, am I optimistic? Not very. There are only four awards to be made this time round and we are up against some very good bids that are underpinned by some very fat cheques from employers. We have some serious investment put up by Unipart and the Port of Tilbury who are leading the bid and we are very grateful on behalf of the sector for that.

However, to date none of the other big players have come in with anything other than the offer of some management time which means we have not yet been able to put the case across to them on behalf of the sector.

By the time you read this, we will be closer to knowing the fate of the bid. If we get it, then the government will part fund a business planning stage and the National Academy will open its doors in September 2009 – just in time for the introduction of the Driver CPC. If we weren’t successful this time round, the bandwagon will keep rolling and the Academy will continue without full government support. Whether it can continue without the support of the big logistics players is another matter of course. Watch this space!

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