Skills strategy development seems to be the talk of the town these days. With changes unfolding in Whitehall over single pot funds and increased pressure on LEPs to develop more focused strategies to pursue a number of UK and EU funds, the skills agenda is taking centre stage. Like many government requests and public debate, however, identifying the problem in ambiguity has been much easier than developing a solution. In order to develop a solution that works, the problem must be pinned down and unambiguously defined.
To assist in addressing the skills strategy challenge, EMSI has worked to engage businesses and stakeholders in a data-driven process that will ultimately strike at the core of the skills agenda, namely workforce and competency needs.
This blog post is part of a multi-blog series, aimed at better understanding the challenges faced with the skills agenda, describing better processes for engaging employers and using LMI to assist in directing and focusing activities. Before we begin, let’s cover why this skills strategy has been so tricky.
The goal of any skills strategy is clear and simple: to develop a trained workforce that is internationally competitive and enables businesses to flourish. The execution of the goal, however, is another matter. Where do we focus our efforts? Do we try to increase the output of workers through further and higher education? Or do we need to rethink the curriculum in which the supply of workers is taught? In other words, at what level of granularity do we view ‘skilled labour’? At the course/qualification level? At the competency level?
To arrive at a definition, we need to think about businesses. We often hear businesses express that the quality of their new hires does not meet the expectations or needs, in spite of the fact that the new hires possess all the right qualifications. If this is the issue, simply producing more degrees and qualifications will not solve the problem. Thus, a solution that focuses on qualifications runs an inherent risk of missing the mark. We need to dive deeper and address the quality of the training not the qualification or degree.
Business-Led Strategies vs. Business-Guided Strategies
The idea of public-private partnerships is relatively new both in the eyes of economic development and of education planning. In practice, however, collaboration, discussion and partnerships (both formal and informal) have long existed between public agencies, education institutions and businesses. These days, businesses and LEPs are increasingly responsible for setting the skills strategy for their areas—often in collaboration with educational institutions, employment and skills boards and/or sector skills councils. Meanwhile, educational institutions are responsible for implementing the strategy defined in part by LEPs alongside competing priorities set by other agencies. Ultimately, the question arises of who is actually driving the skills strategy. Is business in the driver’s seat? Is education? Government? More importantly, who should be in the driver’s seat when dealing with a skills strategy?
The problem with business-led skills strategies is that businesses are not educators. While some businesses might play the role of trainer for specific occupations within the walls of the enterprise, they are predominately producers of goods and services. As a result, businesses focus more heavily on products, services and markets than on internally developing the individual competencies of their workers. Further to that, many businesses (and most SMEs) struggle to articulate in meaningful education vernacular the qualities, competencies and skills that their product or service requires. This is not a failure on the part of either business or education. Rather, this is the reality of how businesses and educational institutions have allocated their limited resources in search of success. Nonetheless, the communication problem is real.
On the other side, we have business-guided strategies. Business-guided skills strategies allow education providers to seek input on skills needs from businesses. If education institutions are responsible for implementing a skills strategy, the process is most effective and efficient if it is driven by education. Let me qualify this by stating that education is never cordoned off from Government and business and left to develop a skills strategy in isolation. In fact, just the opposite is true. Education is leading the charge in skills strategy development and collaboration with business and Government, wherein LEPs are partnered with educational institutions to help facilitate the process and engage all parties. But because all the parties think in different terms, the communication problem is still there. Just as businesses are not great at communicating in skill and education terms, education institutions are not great at communicating in business terms. What we need is some way for education, business and Government to talk about skills in the same terminology.
Establishing a Common Language
O*NET is a US based occupation network and information system funded by the US Department of Labor to the tune of millions of pounds. The system provides comprehensive descriptions of tasks, skills and competencies for over 850 occupation classifications. The competency descriptors for each occupation, articulated within the system, establish a clear foundation for communication between business and education.
So, how does this pertain to the UK? We’ve already seen that a common language system is critical when engaging multiple perspectives (e.g. government, LEPs, business, education, etc.). Good consultants are sensitive to the various perspectives and challenges of different organisations and as such, attempt to bridge the communication barriers through focus groups, interviews, surveys and even masterclasses. We have chosen to take this a few steps further to develop a whole new engagement system using O*NET as the foundation.
EMSI has leveraged the content and detail contained within the O*NET system to develop a complimentary system for the UK, filling the void. As a result, we define and measure 42 different knowledge and skill competencies across almost 400 UK standard occupation classifications (SOC codes). In many instances, we provide more detailed classification than the Government taxonomy provides.
Armed with this information, educational institutions and LEPs can easily engage businesses to seek out their feedback, counsel and input. The value of using the O*NET system lies in describing occupations in terms of their fundamental competencies in a way that businesses can understand and respond, and in which educational institutions can better implement into courses, curriculum and learning objectives – not just in identifying the skills needs for specific roles, but also identifying common skill sets to support a range of employment needs.
The following list provides context on the types of competencies that are measured according to the level of knowledge or skill required to perform occupational duties.
|Law and Government||Active Learning|
|Learning Strategies||Active Listening|
|Mathematics||Administration and Management|
|Medicine and Dentistry||Building and Construction|
|Personnel and Human Resources||Clerical|
|Philosophy and Theology||Communications and Media|
|Physics||Computers and Electronics|
|Production and Processing||Critical Thinking|
|Psychology||Customer and Personal Service|
|Public Safety and Security||Design|
|Reading Comprehension||Economics and Accounting|
|Sales and Marketing||Education and Training|
|Science||Engineering and Technology|
|Sociology and Anthropology||English Language|
|Therapy and Counselling||Foreign Language|
|Writing||History and Archeology|
A Process for Engagement
Well-intentioned government agencies, education institutions and private consultants reach out to businesses through surveys, cold-calling, focus groups and other engagement processes and ask: “What skills and type of worker does your business need?” This approach will get a myriad of different responses, but it forces the business and the engager into the position of reacting to a current lack, rather than planning out a good strategy. A better process is to lead with research and information, identifying trends within the company’s industry, defining the types of occupations and labour typically found within the company’s industry and characterising the skills and competencies of those occupations. In essence, you are establishing a novice level of expertise and understanding about the industry.
Armed with good content and information about the industry, these organisations can then engage in a proactive, guided discussion. Businesses can respond to information about their industry—confirm or deny trends, articulate their workforce in a common language, build better profiles of skill needs and workforce barriers—all in response to good leading research. The feedback and information gained from the encounter may be aligned toward identification of skill needs—ultimately, informing part of your skills strategy.
In the next blog post, we will dive deeper into the execution of preliminary research and development of skill profiles that will help to inform strategies. Two specific perspectives involved are Industry Sector Skills and Occupation Specific Skills.
Hamilton Galloway is an Economist and Senior Consultant at EMSI. He specialises in economic development, labour research and education planning, having also taught economics at college level for three years. Over the past several years, he has worked on dozens of research and strategic planning projects focused on reemployment, course development, skills gaps and target sector strategies.
If you are currently working in the skills strategy development space and would like more information on the products and services that EMSI can provide in support of these endeavours, please contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.