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Interview of the month: Gary Townsend, Sector Skills Development Agency


Gary Townsend, Interim Communication Director, Sector Skills Development Agency, talks to TrainingZONE about the new Sectors Skills Councils, the Agency's role, and the new opportunities business has to take a role in ensuring that skills training policy meets real needs.

TrainingZONE What does the SSDA do?

Gary Townsend The SSDA is a non-departmental, arms-length public agency developing a new nationwide network to better fit training provision to meet skills needs in the real economy. It monitors the performance of Sector Skills Councils (SSCs), and directs funding: both core funding and project funding and helps develop and ultimately licenses new Sector Skills Councils on behalf of the Secretary of State.

It also has a representational role in reflecting the needs, concerns and expertise of the SSC’s back to government and its public agencies.

The SSDA will also pick up other tasks like the development of standards, and treat them in a more pro-active way on a more strategic level. It will do this by acting as a facilitator; contracting with experts in the field who will bring key players into process, and by building on the experience and expertise that already exists within sectors.

Importantly, it also has a significant development role – sharing and disseminating good practice. It provides the means and a mechanism to help raise UK productivity and competitiveness

TrainingZONE There has been a lot of reorganisation in education and training over the last decade. Is the creation of the Sector Skills Councils and the Development Agency just a re-branding exercise?

Gary Townsend It's definitely and categorically not re-branding, because it makes real and practical improvements to the way that training and education provision is planned. Which is not to say that we are not building on the best of what was there before. We are creating a new network that functions and delivers better and more consistently. We are ensuring that the Sector Skills Councils are powered by and owned by employers, the real players in training for work, while also providing them with direct access to government across the UK to really influence thinking and policy.

This strategic sectoral approach is the genuinely new dimension here, it is about bringing businesses together to focus much more effectively on what the real skills needs are, and on what actual changes need to take place to training provision that might take place to make a genuine positive impact on productivity.

TrainingZONE Why do some sectors have SSCs and some not? What are the criteria?

Gary Townsend In a way this is the question we throw back to the sectors: it's up to employers and employers' groups to self-identify, to tell us why they constitute a sector that can work effectively on its training provision. There are some other rigid criteria. To be coherent in these terms a sector needs to have a certain economic impact on GDP and in the labour market. And we want to see employers taking a strong role, saying that they are prepared to develop a sector. Forming a Sector Skills Council involves making a contract. We want to see employers' commitment to increasing the number of people in training, addressing skills gaps and growing the quality and availability of training. And there is a public service element in this, and a necessary willingness to use training as a way of reducing social exclusion.

Employers within a sector will have to demonstrate these forms of commitment through investment, too. Although government can do some of this, and will increase investment when it's evident that it will be effective, employers also need to demonstrate their commitment in both theoretical and practical terms by joining together to establish and resource SSCs.

TrainingZONE Is there a concern that sectors that don't get an SSC will be in danger of falling behind?

Gary Townsend No, because there's no question of functions not being fulfilled. Where essential functions aren't fulfilled by SSCs, the Agency will take them on.

TrainingZONE How do you hope to involve more companies in planning training provision?

Gary Townsend We will be reaching them and drawing them in through major advertising campaigns encouraging business to take up the Sector Skills challenge and see the benefits for them in it. We'll also be urging them to identify skills gaps and to volunteer their own ideas and approaches for closing them. And we will work with unions and union learning representatives, key training providers, LSCs, Regional Development Agencies, the CBI, professional associations and other stakeholders.

The important issue in reaching and engaging companies is that this is a deal: we are willing to give financial resources and influence over provision. Employers, in return for their involvement, will have real power over what training is provided to meet the individual characteristics and unique needs of their sector. The SSCs will put the employer in the driving seat for the first time. And it's absolutely imperative that the driving forces of the economy, small and micro-businesses, get involved. We will be looking to reach them through professional and trade bodies too.

TrainingZONE Is there a best practice and information role for the network?

Gary Townsend Absolutely, this is one of the major advantages of this approach. The five trailblazer Sector Skills Councils are already providing a bedrock in this sense. They are working together, as well as within their sectors, and they now have a direct role in sharing their experience, and mentoring and guiding the emerging sectors who may wish to form Councils in the future.

The whole programme involves a high commitment to sharing good practice. Our role at the Agency is development: of products, services, and a network, all of which respond to actual needs and have a real economic impact.

One of the main functions of the SSDA and the SSCs will be to undertake quality assessment and ensure consistency. These are strategic bodies and it's very important for us to strive towards some degree of consistency and the development of good practice. One example of this new approach is that we will be seeking to develop a common methodology in the provision of labour market information. This will be genuinely UK-wide: it has to work and be meaningful and useful everywhere; across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions, and of course across industries. We are looking in time to produce an SSC web portal which will be the automatic choice for anyone who needs reliable high-quality, consistent labour market intelligence.


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