Mick Jackson

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No it’s not a literal, and no you haven’t discovered a newsworthy “Shock horror – skills executive can’t spell” headline. John Hayes, the skills minister in the Westminster coalition government, is an interesting character with some very unusual and committed views on what is needed to address what is widely considered to be a major threat to any future prosperity for UK plc – that of our poor standing in the skills levels of our workforce.

We have already lost a large proportion of our wealth creating industries to Asia. Large scale, low-skilled manufacturing has gone to China while more technical ICT based jobs have fled in their thousands to India.

In the main (with the exception of an unstable flirtation with the highly transient financial sector), we have not replaced them so the future looks bleak. This is before we factor in the apparently inexorable growth of parts of South America who will need to grab a significant part of the action from somewhere.

It is therefore of little use for UK plc just to follow the path of skilling up its workforce to provide ever more service jobs in restaurants and shops and the busted flush that is the public sector.

The minister’s thesis is that we need to focus ever more strongly on the craft skills necessary to produce a new, better equipped “technician class” that can both identify and then carry out the new opportunities necessary if the UK is to have any chance of competing on the world stage into the future.

He recently gave a speech at the RSA in London entitled “The craft so long to lerne: skills and their place in modern Britain”. While the speech itself covered topics as diverse as Peter the Great, Pele, Rod Laver and paintings by Maclise, his main points concerned the importance of skills development and progression in careers and the importance of re-establishing apprenticeships as the primary form of practical training.

My views on apprenticeships are long-established and well-known to regular readers of this column. The logistics sector has a very poor record when it comes to using apprenticeships as a means of developing its workforce (with the occasional exception of those companies that still run vehicle workshops and can still remember how much value they get from engineering-based apprentices).

I’m not sure many people even know that there are currently seven logistics related apprenticeships on offer ranging from driving to administration and from warehousing to mail services to supply chain management. We will, from early 2011 have for the first time a logistics apprenticeship which will allow new or existing employees to genuinely cover all aspects of what can sometimes be a complex logistics operation.

When I started work I spent two years as a trainee, getting real operational experience three or six months at a time in the various departments of a national wholesaler while doing day release. Fantastic background, a great introduction to the business and so much more valuable to me and my employer than a simple assessment of competence.

The key thing though is that my employer left it there and did not really follow it through – a self-fulfilling prophecy for those non-believers who look for reasons not to develop their people rather than to do so.

We have a government in Westminster that is clearly setting out its stall to develop skills that will contribute to the future increased competitiveness of UK plc. It is also backing that commitment with availability of funding for apprenticeships, despite the necessarily draconian approach to public funding for the foreseeable future.

The government has also strongly backed the sectoral approach to skills development through the SSCs because it wants to place employers clearly at the centre of a demand-led skills system. That position has to be earned through an open-minded approach to skills development from employers themselves.

To me, a key aspect of the current Westminster government’s skills policy is that it is clearly recognising and promoting through a multi-level approach to apprenticeships, the need for systematic development of people’s skills, not just chasing targets for individual qualifications.

Indeed, John Hayes takes the principle further with a call for Sector Skills Councils to become modern-day guilds, overseeing with professional institutes and trade associations, professional development at all levels across a sector. Logistics is an essential business function, a very modern profession, and supply chain management a higher level skill for today and tomorrow.

How about a UK Logistics Guild? And I don’t care how you choose to spell it.

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