The issue: “How can we ensure that the private sector, government and academia pull together to address the skills gap in Scotland, and what do we need to do across our priority sectors to ensure Scotland continues to compete on the world stage?”
Skills are not the sole concern of colleges and universities – they sit at the very heart of all Scottish businesses. Without the right skills for themselves and their staff, entrepreneurs cannot grow their companies.
That’s why skills were the subject of the latest BQ Live debate, which was held at the Blythswood Square Hotel in Glasgow on 24 August. David Lee, a journalist and experienced debate chair, kicked off proceedings by inviting each of the debate’s participants to introduce themselves and to share their initial thoughts.
Robin Westacott, associate professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, explained that he is the programme lead for graduate-level apprenticeships (GLAs) at the university. He pointed out that the private sector, government and academia all used different language and had different bureaucracies, which got in the way of working together. “If we can do something to solve those problems then good things will happen much faster,” he added.
Westacott’s comments on overcoming the use of different language struck a chord with Alasdair Murray, head of food and drink manufacturing recruitment at headhunting firm Eden Scott. He highlighted the need to keep the content of courses up-to-date so they met employers’ requirements and the need for collaboration between the private sector, academia and government.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA’s) director of qualifications, Gill Stewart, said the body worked with industry to make sure its qualifications were as up-to-date as they can be. “It’s important to look at the whole skills pipeline right the way from school through further education, higher education, employment and training,” she said. “If you look at the other European economies that are doing better than Scotland then they put more emphasis on vocational learning during the senior phase of school and the involvement of employers in that area.”
Stewart asked how Scotland could become better at anticipating skills gaps, especially as digital technology triggers the “fourth industrial revolution”. “We need to be much more agile,” she added.
Craig Jackson, people and organisational development consultant at Scottish Water, spoke about the changing demographics of his organisation’s workforce and how he now deals with modern apprenticeships, foundation apprenticeships and the new GLAs. “There’s the potential for a great pipeline of talent that’s got a joined-up way to go from secondary school level all the way through to a master’s degree,” he said. He pointed out that the problem of speaking different languages wasn’t insurmountable and pointed to Scottish Water’s partnership with Clyde College, the Open University and Heriot-Watt.
Anita Simmers, professor of vision science and head of the life sciences department at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), said universities need to work with business to unlock the potential of Scotland’s workforce. “We need to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) much more in schools,” she pleaded. “Scotland will never be a nation filled with innovation if STEM isn’t promoted in schools, along with the right careers advice.”
Simmers highlighted the need for more work-based learning, but added that there was still the need for academic training to stoke innovation, alongside apprenticeships.
The lead head for skills, planning and sector development at Skills Development Scotland (SDS), Chris Brodie, pointed out that parents, peers and wider society had an influence when it came to pupils picking subjects, as well as careers advisors. Brodie also raised the issue of Brexit and how it would affect skills shortages in Scotland.
He added: “Government policy has quite rightly focused on 16 to 19 year olds, but if Scotland’s major problem is around productivity then that’s going to be solved by what goes on in the workplace.”
Lesley Joyce, head of humanities, care and services at the SQA, said Simmers had hit on an important point regarding STEM. “Scotland is a great size for us all to collaborate and share ideas,” she added.
Scottish Water’s head of learning and organisational development, Paul Campbell, echoed Jackson’s optimism and comments about this being a formative time for apprenticeships and for partnerships between businesses, schools, colleges and universities. “When you look at Scotland’s private sector, 98% of it is made up of small or micro businesses,” he added. “How do you bring those voices to the table?”
Alastair McLean, investment director at Rathbone Brothers, sketched out the characteristics of working in a regulated sector, in which workers need to be trained, qualified and competent to carry out controlled functions. “Taxation in the form of the apprenticeship levy is the right way to influence behaviour,” he added.
McLean asked if, during Brexit, the UK could learn lessons from Japan, which also has an ageing population and needs to cope with low immigration. He also highlighted the case of American fast food chain McDonald’s, the share price of which hit an all-time high after it announced it would automate its food ordering points; while McDonald’s argued it would redeploy staff, critics accused it of avoiding higher costs due to the minimum wage.
Polly Purvis, chief executive at information technology (IT) trade body ScotlandIS and chair of CodeClan, Scotland’s first digital skills academy, explained how her organisation had worked with SDS to create a skills development plan for the sector. “It’s essential to skill our young people, but we also need to reskill our workforce,” she said. “How do we give everyone digital skills at pace? That’s a huge challenge, so we can’t be on the back foot. Like many other industries sitting around this table, we also have a problem with gender balance and diversity in general.”
As principal of Dumfries & Galloway College, Carol Turnbull explained her passion is lifelong learning. “The focus on 16 to 24 year olds wasn’t wrong at the time because of high youth unemployment, but it came at a cost to businesses in terms of their existing workforce and the reskilling and upskilling that’s required,” she said.
“We need to flip the focus from full-time learning to part-time learning. More young people need to go into employment when they leave school and then they come up through apprenticeships, degrees and post-grad and so on, because it needs the combination of both. We have far too many qualifications and they’ve been nuanced to far too great an extent because they’ve taken over what employers should be doing in terms of the nuancing of jobs.”
Colin Murchison, associate dean for business development at GCU’s school of engineering and built environment, wanted to highlighted knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) as one of the most-effective government programmes because it has been running for 40 years. He said small businesses were benefiting as well as larger companies.
He thinks the GLAs will be very effective because he’s found his best students have been mature students, who know why they’ve come to university and are more focused on the task. He acknowledged that encouraging more women to study STEM subjects was still a challenge.
Lee asked Turnbull if young people were being asked to make their subject choices when they were still too young to make those decisions and whether much more of an emphasis should be put on encouraging young people to consider employment with some form of training instead of automatically going on to college or university?
“It’s difficult for young people to make decisions because there are so many qualifications and they don’t always understand the choices,” Turnbull reiterated. “It’s up to industry to sell their industries, it’s not up to SDS, so industries need to get more involved in offering advice and guidance.
“I had loads of jobs before ending up back in further education as a lecturer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I had the opportunities to try lots of different things. We’re pushing young people into making choices earlier and earlier, but they don’t have the breadth of understanding about all the different roles and opportunities.
“Going into a particular sector still allows you to try different things. You could work in human resources (HR) or finance or IT in most industries. It’s about sectors and letting young people understand the plethora of sectors out there.”
Brodie explained that careers advisors tried to tell young people about the breadth of sectors open to them. “Young people entering the workforce now will have two or three careers, so our emphasis is on which skills they need,” he said. He pointed out that £1.6bn was invested in the skills system in Scotland – excluding school education – but only £20m was spent on careers advice.
“One of the points Carol raised has real resonance with me – if we’re saying young people aren’t ready to make a careers choice at 16 then we should look at other highly-productive economies and one thing they have in common is that they have an education system that runs to the age of 18,” he added. “They have much more work-based learning and their young people can move into higher education from an employment pathway.”
Brodie argued that, over the past 40 years, further and higher education have been held up as the preferred route for young people after school. He said that, in 1976, 72% of young people went into the workplace immediately after school; in 2017, 40% go into higher education and a further 20% into colleges, of which 80% then go on to university.
“This idea that 50% of pupils had to go to university was fatally flawed,” agreed Murchison. “Industries are looking for a range of skills. Sometimes people will develop the desire to study later in life and that’s why we have a lot of returning learners.
“I like the idea of children having access to a wide range of skills and getting to try things out. You learn by your mistakes and learning what you don’t want to do. When I was young, I got taken around a factory making tyres, and I knew that whatever I did in life it wasn’t going to be working in a big, noisy, dirty factory.”
Purvis jumped in to suggest the decision-making age was being brought forward to 13 or 14 years old now as an unintended consequence of the introduction of the National 5 exams. “I was educated on both sides of the Border and Scotland always had a proud reputation for having an incredibly-wide general education and in fact we’re now narrowing it,” she said. “Teachers have a huge amount on their workload, but schools are still being driven by exam results. Why aren’t we good at STEM in this country? Because maths is seen as hard. Well, life’s hard so let’s get over it.
“We also need to get schools to start using the same terminology as industry. How is a kid meant to know that biology means life sciences?
“And we need teachers to stop saying to the child who wants to take three science subjects at National 5, ‘That’s difficult – why don’t you pick something easier?’ because that happens time after time.”
Lee then turned to Stewart for the SQA’s response. She said any narrowing of the curriculum and subject choices wasn’t a feature of the qualifications but instead was a result of the extension of the broad general education for another year from second year into third year, meaning pupils can do fewer qualifications in fourth year. “In my personal opinion, I agree, it may be too soon for some young people to decide on six subjects that may then temporarily limit their career opportunities,” Stewart agreed.
She said it would be good for all qualifications to incorporate some work-place experience. But she acknowledged that it would require more employers to get involved and highlighted McLean’s point about companies being driven by the interest of shareholders.
“Persuading companies to engage in larger societal interests comes back to policy, taxation and regulation,” McLean said. “I don’t want to paint all public limited companies (PLCs) as evil capitalists. If we have league tables for exams results and tell schools that’s what they’ll be judged on then you’ll change that game any way you can to produce that result.”
Dave Townsley, BQ’s group account director, said it was hard for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to take the first step to employ an apprentice because of the investment in both time and money. He then added apprentices or graduates were often poached away from SMEs by PLCs. “How can we support those SMEs to attract and retain the right talent?” he asked. “It’s those entrepreneurs who are leading in terms of innovation and driving the economy.”
“It’s a significant challenge,” agreed Campbell. “It’s harder now because sectoral skills councils have reduced in recent years. To pick up on Alastair’s point, it’s worth asking what role taxation will have to play once automation makes fewer people employed and reduces payroll taxes.”
Lee asked Murray how big a factor retraining or upskilling would be when it comes to recruitment. “It’s the biggest factor or decision any SME or start-up will make,” he replied. “Once a lot of start-up businesses have got investment, they’re actually looking to recruit people from a PLC background because they need that impact.
“We’ve seen experienced people moving to start-ups because they’re sexy, there’s less red tape, you can touch the sides of the organisation and we’re finding that a lot of people in Scotland are excited by that.”
Turnbull said: “There’s a lot of fear in the SME market about taking on employees, particularly surrounding their liabilities. A lot of SMEs don’t have HR staff. There could be a lot more support for businesses in terms of HR advice.
“When the apprenticeship levy was announced, myself and others asked the minister if some of that money could be used to support micro businesses, even though they aren’t paying the levy. That could have been an opportunity to support micro businesses.”
Brodie agreed and pointed out that between 40% and 50% of modern apprentices were working with SMEs, especially in areas such as construction and hairdressing. “Apprenticeships fit quite well with some business models,” he added.
“SMEs are so busy trying to survive that it’s hard to get them to engage,” said Joyce. “SQA works very closely with sector skills councils and trade bodies.”
Simmers thinks that Scotland’s life sciences sector needs a public relations campaign. “When I was growing up, all we saw on Grampian TV was the oil and gas sector,” she remembered. “But parents have no idea what the life sciences sector is.
“Companies aren’t confident about taking students into their workplace. We need to get over that barrier and show employers that students can be useful. We have a great example with SDS called the Scottish life sciences internship programme – the number of companies signing up to take on interns has grown year-on-year.
“When it comes to life sciences start-ups, everyone is obsessed with their ‘exit strategy’. What’s happened to growth in Scotland?”
Westacott suggested it was more about listening to one another than talking to one another. Historically, the criticism of universities has been that they ask industry what it wants but then go away and do their own thing, he added. “Young people are on a conveyor belt that runs from primary one to degree – there’s no getting off except when you’re 18,” he added. “But there’s no getting off and getting back on again. If someone gets to university and decides after a year that they’ve made the wrong choice then they’re stuck. They’re on a conveyor belt and they’ve been funnelled down. We need a roll-on, roll-off approach to education beyond 16 in which people can make mistakes and learn.”
Simmers argued there has been a change with universities. “Our industry groups told us that they wanted our students to learn about good laboratory practice (GLP) and regulations, so we’ve put those in the syllabus,” she said. “We can move quickly because we’re small.”
The CodeClan digital skills academy is another example of moving quickly to respond to the needs of industry. Lee asked Purvis to explain more about the scheme.
“In 2014, we had a shortage of around 11,000 people per year in our industry and, at best, we turn out 4,000 graduates per year as possible candidates, but half of them go down south,” she responded. “We wanted to find a different way into the industry for people – CodeClan is there to teach computer coding to people who have no previous experience, allowing them to swap careers.
“We only take people with higher national diplomas (HNDs) or first degrees or prior work experience. We’re not looking for 18 year olds and we’re not competing with colleges and universities. The average age is 31.”
Purvis said the SDS approached ScotlandIS at Christmas 2013 and asked if Code Clan could be launched the following September. Students now undertake a 16-week intensive course, with teaching from 9am to 5pm plus personal study in the evening. She praised the SQA for accrediting the course so quickly. So far, 300 students have passed through the academy, which has branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh and is in talks to open in Aberdeen and Inverness.
“It won’t suit everybody and it’s not an alternative to going to college or university or undertaking an apprenticeship or anything else – it’s just another option,” she added.
Brodie said it shouldn’t be underestimated how difficult it was to create something new such as CodeClan. “The skills system needs to change to allow that can of agility to happen more easily,” he added.
“This is an example of something that’s demand-led,” Stewart said. “It’s about getting the right partners and players. When we work internationally, we have a contract that says the client wants qualifications delivered within a set timeframe and so we line up the resources to do that.”
Purvis said: “90% of our students have jobs within six months and 70% of them have jobs within three months. Employers like the model even though, at first, they said ‘Whoa, what’s this, we’re used to taking people with first degrees?’.
“Many people come into the course with domain expertise in other areas so they bring skills with them onto the course. If you’re in financial services then you want someone with digital skills who understands the environment.”
Lee asked: “Can anyone else around the table see other industries that could benefit from a CodeClan-style programme?”
“Within food and drink, the technical areas of food science and engineering are the two areas that industry struggles with,” suggested Murray. “In food and drink, we’re finding the industry is innovating. It’s been behind the times compared to aerospace or automotive, but now people are bringing in robotics and automation, which require a different skillset. People already in the industry may lose their jobs to robotics, so they’ll need retraining.”
“Food is a real issue for me because it’s not seen as an attractive area to move into,” agreed Simmers. “Traditionally, universities would offer a master’s degree in these areas, but perhaps some form of hot-housing type course may be suitable.”
Murray said part of the problem with recruiting people for the food and drink industry was that they needed to have a science background. Simmers suggested there was an argument for offering more general science training at an early stage and then letting student decide later in which areas they wanted to specialise, such as energy or food and drink, rather than training as a microbiologist from day one.
Scottish Water has recently moved its science graduate programme back to covering general science, Campbell revealed. “Graduates will move around the specialisms within our organisation before decisions are made on what they’ll do,” he said.
Lee asked Stewart if the CodeClan experience had made it easier for qualifications to be introduced more quickly? “The development of qualifications needs to be more agile and responsive to what’s going on,” she replied. “SQA works with individual companies and sometimes they want bespoke qualifications within two or three months.”
Brodie added: “The reason we were taken with CodeClan was that it covers an industry in which the skills requirements are changing quickly and there was an undebatable need for people to enter the sector. The other aspect was the financial return for people going into the industry and that helped to underpin the case for it – if you invest in yourself then you’ll get your money back within two or three years.”
CodeClan is now looking at not only getting more women into the computing industry, but also how to get more women to re-enter the industry after having career breaks to start their families, Purvis said. “Colleges and universities between them could find new ways of delivering their content so people can take it up as they need it,” she added. “It’s not just about distance learning because that doesn’t suit everyone.”
Murchison responded: “Universities are all in competition, which is good and bad, because we’re encouraged to bid for researching funding together, but we compete against each other to fill places. The way we’re funded definitely has an impact on how we operate.”
Heriot-Watt and GCU are already working together on GLAs, Westacott explained. “Competition is good because it drives us, but it does create a barrier to get over when we want to work together,” he added. “What we can do with GLAs is share resources and share venues.”
Lee asked Purvis about the need for core digital skills and Purvis pointed to the loss of computer science teachers in schools and the difficulties in keeping the remaining teachers up-to-date with developments. “In California, all pupils are being taught to code, many by volunteers from industry,” she said. “Accrediting people from industry to do extra-curricular teaching is possible.”
Campbell said the reverse was also true about taking teachers out into industry to refresh their skills. Simmers pointed to the example of clinical academics coming to universities from hospitals to teach part of the health programmes.
Jackson outlined how Scottish Water was using engineers from within its business to train its apprentices through its skills academies. Campbell questioned whether young people were all “digital natives” who could automatically use digital technology; while they may be good at using social media and mobile devices, he felt they lacked skills around managing data.
Purvis agreed, pointing to socio-economically-excluded groups who may not have access to computers or smartphones.
Turnbull asked if there was a role for the BBC or other media organisations to play in furthering digital skills.
Turnbull went on to give examples of good work between academia and industry, including Dumfries & Galloway College and Ayr College working with the SQA on a wind turbine technician course and on an overhead power lines technicians course with one of Scottish Power’s contractors. Another example came in the care sector, where the college worked with Dumfries & Galloway College and its local health board on a programme called “Re-enablement”, to help people in their homes.
Joyce praised the speed with which such courses had been put in place. She highlighted how the SQA’s skills for work courses had highlighted how many common skills were needed for areas as diverse as engineering and hairdressing.
The Energy Skills Partnership, which involves further education colleges and industry, was highlighted by Purvis as another example of collaboration, including the development of common courses. A similar process is now being launched for computer science, involving colleges and universities developing common content.
Brodie welcomed the consensus around the table around responsiveness. “There’s an envy down south of how well the public sector in Scotland engages with employers,” he added. “We’re a small country so we should be able to have these conversations and move things forward.”
Lee brought the debate to a close by asking the participants for their thoughts on the introduction of GLAs.
Westacott said they had “huge potential”, while Stewart suggested GLAs might appeal to SMEs more if they could be “chunked” into smaller pieces that might be more manageable.