Chris Brodie, lead head, skills planning and sector development at SDS
Skills Development Scotland is addressing the nation’s skills challenge through a strategy of close collaboration with industry and education, as Peter Jackson finds talking to Chris Brodie.
Low productivity and high youth unemployment has dogged the UK and Scottish economies for most of the past half century, defying successive government attempts to get us to work more effectively. British workers produce less per hour than their competitors in say Japan or Germany, or even in that land of the long lunch and generous holidays, France.
But, while the problems have been persistent, there is now a general consensus as to one of the root causes: we develop highly-skilled people – but there’s a mismatch between the skills they have and skills that employers are looking for. Now, with Brexit looming and the need for us to compete much more effectively in global markets, finding a solution has taken on a new urgency.
Fortunately, in Scotland the government took steps to address the problem five years ago when it turned to Skills Development Scotland (SDS) as part of its skills strategy.
SDS is the national skills agency. Employing more than 1,400 people, it works with employers and individuals to provide Scotland with a skilled workforce. It supports business and industry to create more than 26,000 apprenticeships jobs a year, paying a contribution of about £76m a year towards the cost of training apprentices. It also runs the careers information and guidance service with careers advisers embedded in every state secondary school in Scotland.
The government asked SDS to work with strategic growth industries such as energy, life sciences, creative industries and financial services to develop skills investment plans (SIPs) throughout the economy.
Chris Brodie, lead head, skills planning and sector development at SDS, says: “What they asked us to do was to work with industry to answer three basic questions: what was driving growth and was the industry likely to need more people? What was changing in the industry that might have an impact on the nature of skills that industry required? And how comfortable or happy was that industry with what was coming out of the skills system?’’
The handful of sectors covered in the original remit has since been expanded to cover areas such as digital and information and communication technology (ICT), construction, engineering, health and social care.
From the beginning SDS took an evidence- based approach. It has undertaken labour market intelligence, working directly with companies and using industry leadership groups to identify the major skills issues, the priorities within them and how the skills system should be adapting.
SDS worked with industry on sector specific SIPs. These have been supported by regional skills assessments, which provide a coherent evidence base for colleges and universities, and other public bodies to use in planning their skills provision. They highlight economic and labour market data, and, for the first time, offer trends and forecasts at both regional and local authority level, drawing on a summary of that national evidence base and a summary of what the sectoral SIPs, have to say.
“We’ve got a national evidence base which tells us how the economy is moving, informed by deep insight from industry’’ says Brodie. “The challenge is, how do we then use that to align what the skills system is delivering behind the needs of the economy?’’
The answer was certainly not to adopt some kind of Soviet command-style system, attempting to second guess the market by providing a supply of the appropriate labour with the anticipated required skills. He explains: “What we are not trying to do is deliver a demand-and-control system. Rather this is about putting forward our datasets and best evidence of where the economy is now, how it is moving and where the demand for skills may be in the future.” He adds: “I don’t think you can forecast the future with certainty. But you can determine long- term trends in the labour market and if you think they’re likely to continue.
“The important thing is that it is not SDS colleagues working in isolation. All our work is about engagement with industry and partners.’’
It has set up 14 skills groups and it also works closely with colleges and universities to gather their views on the likely direction of demand so that it can then point colleges and learning providers in the right direction to meet that demand.
“SDS doesn’t dictate or seek to control, but created evidence-based demand statements for learning providers,’’ says Brodie.
One area where such evidence was acted upon was in digital. It was clear that Scotland faced the global problem of an acute shortage of young people and a wider workforce with IT skills. The relentless and accelerating pace of digitisation has driven a voracious demand for people with digital skills and experience in just about every sector.
“Digital is the number one area of the Scottish economy where we need relentless focus on developing capability in skills,’’ says Brodie. However, a few years ago the training wasn’t in place to cope with this demand. There was a decline in computer science degrees. “Our SIP work revealed that in a number of parts of Scotland there was no capacity to teach computing science in schools.
“That was just one of the disconnects between where the economy was going and how the skills system was responding,’’ says Brodie. “At the same time as this phenomenal growth in demand for skills we were seeing parts of the university and college system switching off provision because of a lack of demand from learners, and dissatisfaction from employers on the number of people being trained.
“So we formed an industry-wide group, supported by £6.5m from government and we essentially went to the industry group and said, “tell us where we spend this money’.”
The result was a broad programme of activity targeted at strengthening capability in schools, raising awareness of technology careers through the “Digital World” Campaign, working with colleges and universities to increase the volume and quality of higher education and further education provision and supporting the establishment of Codeclan, Scotland’s first digital skills academy.
“The critical point is that we didn’t just fund one part of the system, but we looked right across and just tried to get to the root of the problem,’’ says Brodie.
Similarly in the field of health and social care it was possible to identify demand and take steps to increase supply. The Scottish Government has made a commitment to double the number of hours of free childcare for under-fives. This not only presents a massive business opportunity but also a major challenge in terms of skills. SDS estimates there could be need for anything up to a further 12,000 people over the next five years to meet that demand.
Brodie says: “We’ve done a major piece of work this year on the demand for early years learning. Again, we’re using that and working with local authorities to influence skills and training provision in that sector.’’
So, it’s not command and control, but neither is the emphasis the same as that south of the Border. Brodie explains: “The approach in Scotland is very different to that in England. The English approach is much more laissez-faire and market led. Ours is probably a bit more coherent, I would argue. But then I would say that wouldn’t I?’’
SDS, however, has not only been taking a sector-specific approach to skills, it has also sought to address the problem in the round, looking at the way in which we train and educate all our young people and prepare them for work. To this end, it looked long and hard at the development of our system and compared it to how things have operated in Europe.
Brodie explains: “If you went back 40 years ago and looked at the route school leavers took into the labour market, something like 70% would go straight into employment, and if you fast forward to 2017, that number is sitting at about 30%, with 70% going into college or university. We think that something has been lost along the way. It’s not just about the nature of work changing; some of that generation who went straight to work would have been in jobs with work-based learning and gaining their qualification in the workplace.
“The second thing is, we carried out research on what was happening through the recession when there were big concerns about youth unemployment, but at the same time, big concerns about Scottish productivity. So we had a programme of work around what were the success factors in the countries with successful economies: the Norways, the Switzerlands, the Germanys of this world.’’
Lengthy studies and observation of the labour markets in these countries identified three key – and connected-factors: higher levels of productivity, much lower levels of youth unemployment, and a much higher proportion of post-16-year-olds in work-based learning.
Brodie says: “We wondered whether there was some way in the system where we could get back – not to 70% of kids going straight into work – but towards an education and skills system where you could acquire graduate-level qualifications in the workplace.’’
SDS worked with a range of industry groups that were facing challenges in recruitment to develop the graduate level apprenticeship (GLA), supported by European Social Funds. “Essentially, this allows employees to learn and gain an industry-recognised qualification whilst in the workplace through reflecting and working with others on real life challenges. We think that has got a number of benefits for the individual, for the economy and for the skills system,’’ says Brodie.
“For the individual, you’re not spending four years building up student debt and you’re earning a wage while you’re learning. For companies, they get access to people who are more likely to fit the culture of their company because they can mould them and some of the early evidence from the apprenticeship programme is that they are likely to be loyal and be with the company rather than move on. In the long run the potential benefit to the Exchequer is around a more efficient and effective way of building our graduate-level skills into the economy.’’
Last year, SDS supported 27 GLAs in two pilot schemes and, for this year, it has now contracted for up to 379 across nine universities and colleges and it is currently involved in another round of contracting for 11 frameworks. Brodie adds: ”Our ambition is for this to become almost a central part of the Scottish university offer. The aim is for the GLAs model to become part of the mainstream.’’
Alongside GLAs is the foundation apprenticeship programme for young people at the senior phase of school – usually staring in S5 to not only give them a qualification but also to equip them to make more informed choices about their careers.
“It’s not just aimed at young people who may have taken what would have traditionally been a ‘vocational route’ - it’s about encouraging a new style of work-based learning.’’ says Brodie. “You get the opportunity to get some industry experience and a qualification certified by SQA at the same level of learning as a Higher. So we have foundation apprenticeships in things like engineering and digital as well as in things like construction and social care.
“One of the interesting things around the pilots, for example in engineering, is that they encourage young people to think more widely about their options and about work-based learning”. Some say, “I hadn’t really thought of engineering but now that I’ve enjoyed the learning, I had work experience and this is where I want to go and move onto an engineering degree’. Conversely some kids have said, “This what I always wanted to do, but now it’s not’. So they are making better informed decisions.
“The work we have done – and we are really grateful for the support we’ve had from the university sector in this – is to secure tariff equivalency around foundation apprenticeships. So the skills system has recognised the value of it. And for employers it has been a way for them to identify and recruit talent.’’
Young people spend time out of school at college and with a local employer, and complete the foundation apprenticeship alongside their other subjects.
Foundation apprenticeships are currently available in ten subjects including civil engineering, software development and financial services. As well as providing work-based learning for pupils they also support a talent pipeline for employers.
In 2014-2015 SDS ran two pilots for foundation apprenticeships in West Lothian and Fife and it is expecting to contract for up to 1,500 places around the time of writing, which will be delivered across more than 150 schools and will touch every local authority area in Scotland.
“We think that foundation apprenticeships can make a major contribution to improving work experience and improving the work readiness of young people and critically helping them make really informed career choices,’’ says Brodie.
Again, the underlying principle in all this has been one of full engagement and partnership with the worlds of business, skills, education and academia. Brodie explains: “This is an ambitious programme of expansion around work-based learning and the apprenticeship family. Employers have got a huge interest in expanding apprenticeships and work-based learning, in no small part driven by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. The message on the UK apprenticeship levy - no matter their size or sector - employers can access support for apprenticeships in Scotland. Website www.apprenticeships.scot provides step-by-step help with further support from our employer services team.
“SDS believes in enabling industry to take a leadership role in skills development. That’s why the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board was established, following recommendations from the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce.
Led by employers and industry representatives across a range of sectors the board will ensure that the development of apprenticeships in Scotland is aligned with industry and economic need, fair work and job opportunities. It is made up of four groups: group board, employer engagement group, employer equalities group and the frameworks and standards group.
“Those are not talking shops, those are busy groups that are tasked with doing the heavy lifting of what apprenticeship policy should look like in those areas,’’ says Brodie.
When SDS established the SIPs it created industry leadership groups in skills for each of the industry sectors. It will go back to those groups this autumn to ask whether they believe the work it has done to gauge demand reflects the true situation and whether all the type of apprenticeships – or frameworks – are operating effectively.
“So we have quite a structured process to give industry a say on not just how much we contract but on whether we have got the right types of apprenticeships in place,’’ says Brodie.
SDS’s strategy is perhaps more hands-on than that south of the Border, but, according to Brodie it is attracting interest from England, and the Department for Education in Whitehall is keen to understand how SDS has built its approach.
He adds: “Our approach is about working with employers and partners to continue to improve and build on the great assets in the Scottish skills system.
“We’ve had interest from Norway, from the Philippines, from Pakistan, in the approach we’ve taken in Scotland. I hesitate to call it unique, but it’s certainly different.’’
Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board (SAAB) Spotlight On...David Linton, BT
Head of graduate development David Linton. Working at BT for 22 years, he is a member of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board Employer Engagement group.
What does the company do?
We use the power of communication to make a better world. BT is one of the world’s leading communications services companies, serving the needs of consumers in the UK and across the world, where we provide fixed-line services, broadband, mobile and TV products and services as well as networked IT services. Our customers cover individuals, small and medium sized enterprises, domestic businesses and the public sector, to multinational corporations and local and national government organisations.
What’s a typical day for you?
I wish there was a typical day. I’m responsible for the delivery of BT’s end to end graduate programme from the point of hire through to them transitioning into the business two years later.
I own the strategy and design of the programme and am often working with internal stakeholders on shaping our graduate proposition as well as a range of internal and external suppliers in delivering our development programme. I’m also actively involved in the apprentice programme in Scotland and working on our levy implementation plans for the UK.
What is your vision for growing the apprenticeship offer in Scotland?
BT continues to have a strong representation in Scotland with business areas such as Openreach being a really recognisable apprentice recruiter. Moreover, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy has seen us take the opportunity to ramp-up apprentice recruitment generally, going from circa. 700 per year to close to 2,000 for 2017-18. We don’t see the levy as an inhibitor. We’re committed to continuing to grow our apprenticeship offer in Scotland and offering great apprenticeships and careers for our young people.
Why do you think the work of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board is important?
The Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board helps shape industry thinking around apprenticeships and makes sure that there is a strategy that supports Scotland’s economic goals, not just the resource plans of a business. I also think it’s really important that we inspire change and actually galvanise real action rather than being a policy talking shop like many of us have seen before.
Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board (SAAB) Spotlight On...Steven Grier, Microsoft
Steven Grier is country manager at Microsoft, and member of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board Employer Equalities Group.
What does the company do?
We build software and services that help empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. Yes, it is a corporate mission statement but it genuinely seems to fit with what we do.
Do you have an apprenticeship programme at Microsoft?
Yes we do – we have a wide ranging early-in-career programme across Microsoft in the UK and in Scotland. We also help drive and promote apprenticeships and have recently taken a new target in Scotland to drive 6,000 digital modern apprenticeships by 2020 and double the number of female apprenticeships in the technology cohort.
What is your vision for growing the apprenticeship offer in Scotland?
It is hugely important for Scotland as a country that we look at every possible career journey that can help bridge some of the skills gaps we can see appearing in the technology and digital landscape.
The popularity of the modern apprenticeship programmes has been inspirational and it’s really encouraging to see foundation apprenticeships and graduate apprenticeships programmes adding to the possibilities.
In some areas however we have very clear diversity gaps and it would be great, for example, to see more females coming into the digital space.
Why do you think the work of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board is important?
It is really simple; apprenticeships are there to help employers grow their businesses. Having SAAB with its employer representation keeps everything focused on the needs of these businesses, helping them find and develop the skills they need.