Employment and Skills – 21st Century Stylee?

  • How do we develop a workforce that is Fit for the Future?
  • How do we tackle the problems of ‘worklessness’?

Important questions that we have sought solutions to for most of my working life.

Broadly speaking we have two possible approaches.  We can  set up a committee of the great and the good, employers, politicians, civil servants from Learning and Skills and Job Centre Plus and we can task them with collating evidence on labour markets, forecasting the future and identifying practical and affordable opportunities to intervene in the systems of education and worklessness that will make sure we develop the workforce that we need, when we need it.  This centralised approach puts power and resources in the hands of an Employment and Skills Board and sets them an impossible task.  It is the Soviet approach to planning tractor production.  It didn’t work for them.  And it hasn’t worked for us.

This approach results in a relatively small number of experiments (pilots) that are later rolled out.  It relies on a committee to accurately ‘read’ the future – to spot opportunities for job creation and then to exert an influence on the ‘production system’ quickly enough to make a positive difference.  This is usually done by setting targets, shifting resources and waiting to see how things unfold.  Strategies are typically set for perhaps half a decade and ‘refreshed’ annually – single-handedly tackling the worklessness agenda by employing a small army of civil servant and academics to collect data and produce reports.

Such boards end up being an ‘interesting’ balance between the voice of the private sector and democratic accountability.  In fact they usually become stylized ‘war zones’ from which the private sector often retreats beaten into submission by public sector and academic working practices.  Certainly the voice of the small business sector is rarely effectively heard.

Board strategies usually find a few ‘keys’ (NVQs, Diplomas, accredited in-house training, apprenticeships) to a few kingdoms (construction, health and beauty, tourism, call centres, and anything prefixed with ‘creative’, ‘digital’, ‘bio’, ‘high tech’ or ‘high growth’).  Aspirations and strengths of people are subordinated to the Board’s ideas about future skills needs and ‘opportunities’.  Conformity is valued over originality.  Learning ‘off piste’ becomes tricky.

Alternatively we could radically de-centralise and localise the process of thinking and planning about ‘fitness for the future’.  Instead of relying on an Employer Skills Boards to ‘make things right’ we could lay down a challenge to people to develop the skills and passions that they need to secure an economically viable future for themselves, to find what, for them, is ‘good work‘.  To  find their own contribution.   We could develop enterprising people supported in enterprising communities.  This would need schools and colleges to focus on the learner and their vision for their future rather than on the curriculum or qualification structures.

Such a decentralised, enterprising approach might:

  • enable many more informed brains to be brought to bear on the problem of fitness for the future – academics, industrialists and civil servants do not have a great track record in ‘workforce development’
  • enable people to explore ways of doing what they can do best – and not sub-optimising to conform with the ‘few keys to the few kingdoms’ identified by ‘The Board’
  • encourage the local community to support people in acquiring the skills, experience and work opportunities that they need to flourish economically and socially
  • support people to find learning experiences that help them to become the person that they want to be – rather than to conform with the ideal established by a fallible and distant Board
  • significantly increase the volume of learning experiments in the labour market and enable word of mouth to make sure that we develop a dynamic, flexible, responsive and self-reliant workforce

Perhaps these are not alternatives.  Perhaps we need to develop both strategic and responsive approaches to employment, skills and worklessness in the 21st century.

One thing I am sure of… establishing yet another Employment and  Skills Board (this time for the Leeds City Region) is unlikely to give us a major step forward.


  1. Spot on. A classic example of this approach is ESOL provision, which has been reorganised numerous times in an attempt to professionalise delivery. Has the result been a motivated, professional workforce? Er, no. Ever higher qualifications have been demanded of an increasingly casualised profession.

    Alan Wells, former head of the Basic Skills Agency, wrote a scathing piece in the Guardian a couple of years ago: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/feb/12/furthereducation.educationguardian2

    I haven’t seen anything since to disprove his point.

    As you say, there’s a case for the strategic stuff: research, surveys of employers’ needs and so on. But by the time that works through into implementing policy labour markets have moved on. There needs to be a much more direct injection of that intelligence where it really matters.

  2. As you know, Mike, we at Paces are treading a similar path, especially with our young adult group – people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Problem is – no funding to pay wages we need to. We forge on, regardless.

    Contrast your /our approach with whole perspective of “Doing Things Differently: Step Changes in Skills and Inclusion” Policy Connect http://bit.ly/aQhpdb

  3. Maybe developing Linked Open Data (LOD) for Leeds offers a way for us organisationally. A linked data initiative is being pushed at the University of Leeds and we are reaching out to all related organisations especially those in the region. LOD development is starting with data specifically about the University of Leeds, focussing on research, education provision and the development of knowledge. But it is key for the university to demonstrate and engage in knowledge exchange and impacts locally and so there is a push to encourage the development of similar data in other organisations. This should give us a useful model of how the region operated, a model which we can use to improve the Productivity, Upgrading, Matching, Ambition (PUMA) virtuous circle that Mike Campbell talked about on 2011-07-28 at the Sustainable Cities Masterclass and for which my notes are available on-line via the following URL:
    To find out more about the development of Leeds LOD, please sign up to the opendatagroup email list via http://data.leeds.ac.uk

  4. This is a great post and is a perfect example of the problem that Stafford Beer was tackling when he developed the Viable Systems Model. A fractal organisational structure enables the advantages of scale with local responsiveness . You describe a perfect example of Ashby’s law of variety which states that only variety can absorb variety. Simply put if you have 10 variables you need a system with 10 responsive elements to adequately deal with it. Fractal organisational structure is part of the answer but the other part is the way in which new networks make it possible to embrace levels of variety (or complexity) which were previously impossible.
    One of the things I’ve been working on is a self service cognitive mapping capability which can be used by anyone in a fractal structure Another tool which can be used to absorb enormous variety and make it manageable are Prediction Markets both of these could help provide truly local individual engagement in helping to resolve the issues you describe.

    Basically though from a Systems Thinking perspective you are absolutely right the approach being used at the moment is utterly and completely inadequate for purpose


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by julian dobson, Michael Chitty and George Selmer, rockenergy. rockenergy said: RT @juliandobson: Excellent piece by @mikechitty on employment and skills boards: – http://bit.ly/arHsGk SPOT ON […]

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  3. […] analyse the economy like it is a game of monopoly where you can understand the roll of the dice, seeing and preparing for an uncertain future.  Don’t pretend that people and their aspirations count for nothing as you ponder the balance […]

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