Making skills work for the Welsh economy

Sometimes in life you are lucky to come into contact with individuals who can make a real difference to the world around them.

In my case, I was fortunate enough to work closely with one such individual for four years when I held the chair in entrepreneurship at the University of Glamorgan between 1996 and 2000.

Sir Adrian Webb, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glamorgan during my time there, was a visionary who created a new vision for higher education in Wales, a vision that became a shining example of how to create a new type of academic institution that took its role as critical actor in the Welsh economy seriously.

After retiring from the post, Adrian has supported many new initiatives, and currently holds the chairmanship of the Wales Employment and Skills Board.

This body was created to strengthen the voices of employers on skills in Wales, give expert advice to Welsh ministers, and help Wales to develop a high-skills economy with opportunities for everyone. Last week, it published a critical report that I believe has the potential to act as the blueprint for the development of the Welsh economy.

Skills That Work for Wales – A Skills and Employment Strategy and Action Plan” is a groundbreaking analysis of what needs to be done to ensure that Wales gains a real competitive edge when we finally emerge out of recession.

Unlike other reports, it takes seriously the premise that if we improve skills within Wales we will have a more prosperous society, reduced inequality, more jobs and lower poverty.

In particular, business will be pleased to see the emphasis on basic skills, especially as a quarter of working age adults in Wales struggle with simple literacy and numeracy. The proposed reform of GCSEs so they place a greater emphasis on securing the basics in English, Welsh, mathematics and ICT is something that is long overdue and should be loudly welcomed by anyone looking to employ someone during the next 12 months.

I was struck by the message that improving skills is not merely an issue for Government alone, but must fully involve employers at every level.

As someone who has been involved in management education for more than 20 years, a “something for nothing” culture has developed in Wales where an increasing number of companies will not participate in programmes unless there is a grant available.

That is completely the wrong reason for undertaking training, and business should invest in the development of its people because it makes economic sense in terms of increased productivity, enhanced innovation and better financial return on investment.

One of the critical conclusions of the report was the importance of skills in the strategic development of businesses alongside other issues such as capital investment, innovation and workforce planning.

While recommending that different arms of Government should work more closely together, it is a shame that the report did not take the next step and propose that economic development and skill should be integrated under one super department within the Assembly to ensure real value for employers.

In particular, the higher education sector needs to review its role within the economy and adopt a wider skills-based approach to its agenda for supporting economic development and finally recognise that producing basic research may not be the only way it can influence the future of the Welsh economy.

Overall, this was an excellent report that recognised the weaknesses of the Welsh economy and, more importantly, put forward suggestions for its improvement.

And the response from the Welsh Assembly Government to this report? Predictably, it was yet another denial of the reality of the situation as a spokesperson said that “a lot of the recommendations made by Sir Adrian Webb and his team were already being implemented”.

If that is the case, why did the cross-party Education and Learning Committee within the National Assembly recommend that the Labour-Plaid Government should create better links between economic development and education, increase the level of business rate relief to Welsh firms and implement a manufacturing strategy.

Perhaps the same spokesperson could tell us why Wales continues to languish at the bottom of the UK prosperity league table, why the level of private sector research and development in Wales investment remains the lowest of any region, and why unemployment is the highest of any of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom?

Dafydd Wigley, President of Plaid Cymru, said recently on a political programme that he remembered one very senior civil servant in Wales stating he would rather make no decision than make the wrong decision.

My worry is that despite an excellent report by Sir Adrian and his team, little will be done to implement its recommendations and that doing nothing will be the safer option than doing something to make the economy of Wales move forward.

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