Alasdair MacRae

Alasdair MacRae head of business development and customer support

Qualified to succeed

The Scottish Qualifications Authority works with both large and smaller companies to accredit and award the training that will help to grow our nation’s economy, as Alasdair MacRae explains.

When entrepreneurs think of qualifications, many will remember the certificates that they and their children received at school, whether they were O-Grades, Standard Grades, Intermediates or the new National 4s or National 5s. Yet school certificates are just the tip of the iceberg for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

Created in 1997 through the merger of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, the SQA is Scotland’s accreditation and awarding body for a whole host of qualifications, from the National and Higher courses sat by school pupils through to the Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND) qualifications offered by further education colleges.

Many of its qualifications are awarded outside the formal classroom setting. The Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) are focused on training and development for those already on-the-job, while National Progression Awards (NPAs) can help people into the world of work and Professional Development Awards (PDAs) can aid them in developing their skills in professional settings.

Some of the SQA’s most-popular qualifications enable employees to have a licence to practice – such as in the construction industry for the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) Card – or for operatives and supervisors working on roads, through Street Works qualifications.

“The ideas for qualifications can come from lots of different places,” explains Alasdair MacRae head of business development and customer support at the SQA. “Suggestions can come from customers, members of staff, industry bodies or even the Scottish Government.

“If a company has spotted a qualification that it thinks its staff needs then it can get in touch with our business development team. Our qualifications design teams includes representatives from schools, colleges, employers, trade bodies and skills councils.

“We make sure that the SQA’s qualifications are inclusive and reflect the need for progression, and also that they reflect Scotland’s economic and cultural needs. We’re a non-departmental public body, so we can also develop qualifications that can help to protect more niche skills if they are important to Scotland – it’s not all about volume, whereas some other awarding organisations have to do it on commercial terms.”

One of the niche qualifications developed by the SQA covered the Harris tweed industry. The qualification has helped to preserve skills in the industry, which now produces tweed for many international fashion brands. Other qualifications have a much broader appeal. Figures from Skills Development Scotland (SDS) showed that the Scotland’s digital technology sector is creating 12,600 jobs each year and the SQA is working to help fill those vacancies with qualified candidates.

“At times, it can be difficult for employers to predict skills gaps and we need to be a step ahead of that process,” MacRae explains. “Both as an employer and a parent, it’s important that we get that process right.

“I’ve got three children – one has just entered the world of work having completed his HND, another has just completed his Highers and my daughter is in the latter stages of primary school. Even in that small personal sample, the choices facing each of them will be very, very different.

Alasdair“It’s predicted that young people will now have multiple careers and some are already employed in roles that didn’t exist as recently as five or ten years ago. Technology will have a significant impact and people are already talking about a fourth industrial revolution, marked by emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things.

“All of that is shaping the skills gaps we’re seeing. For example, in the computing industry our qualifications must meet the needs of a range of learners, from young people to older people getting their first taste of the industry.

“There’ll be people within the industry who want to further hone their skills or broaden their skills. And then there’ll be people from other areas who want to move into the industry.”

MacRae points to areas such as coding and cyber security, where demand is outstripping supply. High-profile examples of cyber-security breaches always drives demand for more training and more qualifications. “Dundee & Angus College has established a code academy using our qualifications, which is helping to bridge that skills gap,” he says. “It’s establishing links between local schools, universities and businesses.

“Schools are providing these opportunities too. Kyle Academy in South Ayrshire has been instrumental in developing the SQA’s NPA in cyber security – that’s the first cyber security qualification available to school-age candidates anywhere in the UK and provides pupils from fourth year to sixth year with the opportunity to study areas including digital forensics, data security and ethical hacking.

“Another good example is our partnership with Code Clan, which offers a 16-week intensive course that teaches coding to people who have no previous experience. It’s recognised by employers and leads on to jobs at the end of it.”

MacRae points to the speed with which courses like the one offered by Code Clan could help to bridge specific skills gaps. He also highlights the roles that more traditional qualifications – such as the one-year HNC and the two-year HND – can play in quickly training people to fill skills shortages.

Alasdair 02“We’re also seeing changes in traditional industries, such as construction, where there’s more off-site building and then on-site assembly,” he adds. “Look at being a car mechanic – that’s more about computer-aided diagnostics now than getting oily rags out, and that trend will continue as we switch to electric cars when petrol and diesel engines are phased out.

“In the engineering industry, we’re now seeing the emergence of tidal and offshore wind energy. All these areas are touching on more-traditional skillsets but placing them in a new context.

“Developments in these areas don’t just alter the content of qualifications but can also change the level of the qualification. A car mechanic may now need to be more skilled at a higher level than they were in the past, for example.”

Where off-the-shelf qualifications aren’t available, the SQA also offers a customised awards service to create bespoke qualifications for employers. MacRae says that recognising employees’ achievements with qualifications rather than just offering training can help to both motivate and retain members of staff.

Back in 2014, the Scottish Government published “Developing the Young Workforce” (DYW), its youth employment strategy, which came in response to the final report from the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, led by former Wood Group chief executive and chairman Sir Ian Wood. “DYW is still developing but I think the approach is great,” says MacRae.

“I think the SQA is uniquely placed within the DYW programme to help young people realise their potential and achieve their ambitions because we work with training providers, employers, colleges, schools, local authorities and stakeholders like SDS.

“We’re uniquely placed to work with all these groups. Our team of regional managers plays an important role in getting these groups to work together – it’s a great initiative but it will only work if people come together.

“We also understand the needs of both learners and employers and we can help one group to help the other and through that create a more-qualified and therefore motivated and productive workforce. Our qualifications suite has been well-suited to DYW and it’s a compliment that we’ve not had to make huge changes to our range of qualifications to support DYW.

“It backs-up the fact that the qualifications suite is already there to help young people into work and it helps to move the initiative forward quicker as well because we’re not starting from scratch. The qualifications are designed and reviewed in partnership with employers and learning institutions along the way.”

MacRae also points to the efforts by schools to help pupils move into the workplace. He praises the work being carried out in vocational areas as well as traditional academic disciplines. “For example, members of staff at Craigroyston Community High School in Edinburgh are delivering a pre-apprenticeship programme for senior pupils, who embark on year-long structured work experience placements for local businesses such as Apex Hotels,” he says. “While they’re on placement for two afternoons a week, they continue to study for their qualifications at the school, while working towards industry-recognised vocational qualifications too.

“They can then go on to Modern Apprenticeships with prospective employers. For people who lack motivation, this means they can see a path of progression laid out in front of them, giving them a successful outcome.”

As well as its work in its homeland, the SQA also has centres in other parts of the UK and overseas. It is recognised by the Office of Qualifications & Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) to deliver qualifications in England, while its international operations include an established programme in China.

“The beauty of the SQA is that we’ve got qualifications for just about everyone,” adds MacRae. “We’ve got qualifications for pupils in schools and students in colleges, for trainees and apprentices, for people who already have qualifications and for people who don’t have any qualifications, for people in employment and for people not in employment. We have qualifications that cater for all these needs.”

Find out more about the SQA at, see a chart comparing the levels of the Scottish Credit & Qualifications Framework (SCQF) and explaining how they relate to qualifications gained in the past at and read a guide for employers on national qualifications at and a guide to Scottish Qualifications at