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Call for reform of education to help address skills shortage

As industry frets about a looming skills crisis, one business group says the education sector needs to learn from the oil and gas industry if it is to meet the needs of Scotland's young workforce.

TALENT SEARCH: David McGinnigle, centre, with d2 Corporate Solutions co-founders Keith Dickson, left and Derek Templeton. Picture: Mark Mainz
TALENT SEARCH: David McGinnigle, centre, with d2 Corporate Solutions co-founders Keith Dickson, left and Derek Templeton. Picture: Mark Mainz

The Scottish Council for ­Development and Industry (SCDI) has said the Wood Commission's wide-ranging review of the crisis is a chance to drive through reform and innovation in schools and colleges - despite potential political turbulence ahead.

Chief executive Ross Martin said: "It gives at least the opportunity for stability, through the next three years of potentially quite dramatic political transition, with the referendum, UK, Scottish and local elections."

Mr Martin said the new ­Curriculum for Excellence had the right aims but was "plodding through treacle" in its progress, adding: "Changing the education system in Scotland takes far too long and is overly costly." He said the goals of the Wood review needed "implementation of the new curriculum in the way ­innovation in the oil and gas sector, for instance, has been driven, with that same attitude".

He was commenting on The Herald's SME-SOS campaign, which has highlighted the need to unlock the potential of Scotland's vital SME sector in key policy areas including the skills gap. Last week a survey by HSBC and the Prince's Trust found 69 per cent of Scottish employers fear they will suffer from a significant skills crisis over the next three years, with more than half worried that it will hit within 12 months. More than one-quarter of major firms said it could damage their operations to the point of closure.

The review published in June by oil and gas magnate Sir Ian Wood found fewer than 30 per cent of Scottish businesses have contact of any kind with education, and that schools were "simply not preparing and ­equipping" non-academic school-leavers for the world of work."

The Herald spotlighted small business concerns over basic numeracy skills of school-­leavers, and fears that the drive for education-business engagement could exclude SMEs in favour of easier big-company partnerships.

One of the SCDI's aims is to use local Invest in Youth' groups, highlighted by Sir Ian, to extend its network of Young Engineer and Science Clubs into every school.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says skills shortages track on its quarterly index as the third biggest barrier to growth after the domestic economy and consumer confidence.

Policy officer Stuart ­Mackinnon said: "SMEs see skills differently from the way policymakers see them. The popular conception is that a complicated subsea cabling business off the coast of Aberdeen can't get skills, but our members mean people who lack the basic ability to learn, the wider question of general work-readiness and how you tackle that."

He said the review was headed in the right direction, but warned: "The route they are going down is partnerships - sign a contract and we will deliver so many work placements. We have said that is not the way to get small employers involved; that will probably be a disincentive to participation."

As SMEs account for more than half of private-sector employment, "a lot of leavers are going to end up working for SMEs, but that world of work that is fairly invisible to the school establishments", Mr Mackinnon said.

When the FSB asked its members last year what would encourage them to get more involved with schools and colleges, one-third said more outreach was needed.

As north of Scotland family woodworking business owner Adrian Green put it: "I suppose I could be a bit more proactive but I am a businessman: I have to run a business to make money, not to save the world."

Mr Mackinnon said: "For SMEs there is a passive relationship unless you have a child in school or a family member in education. But if you create a close working relationship, the concerns of employers start to feed in, they will start to offer more work placements, schools and colleges will become a bit more responsive to what the local labour market needs, and qualifications start to have more credibility locally."

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers, said: "The commission's proposals have the potential to herald a fundamental change in the way in which businesses engage with young people."

Neil McLennan, co-chairman of Young Academy Scotland, has highlighted the "green shoots" in entrepreneurial learning needed to inspire young people to create their own micro-business. He cites Young Enterprise Scotland, which partners with the FSB, runs training programmes, and provides practical opportunities for young people aged five to 30 to get involved with business and enterprise; the Princes Trust; the Social Enterprise Academy; and the MicroTyco schools challenge. The latter has in its two-year life not only engaged almost 17,000 young and older participants but raised £600,000 for micro-financing entrepreneurs in the world's poorest communities.

Mr Martin said that at a time of political uncertainties, the road map offered by Sir Ian's review "gives the prospect of a shot in the arm" to Scotland's economy.

CASE STUDY

Apprenticeships are a key theme of the Wood Review, which includes a recommendation that the Scottish Government enables apprenticeships to begin in schools, and provides additional support and subsides for micro and small businesses interested in taking on an apprentice.

For d2 Corporate Solutions, a Glasgow-based insurance broker, plans to expand into England this year and up the workforce from 24 to 30 provide an opportunity to take on its first ever apprentice.

Co-founder David McGinnigle admits to being "slightly wary" due to the concerns over school-leavers' basic skills, but says he has been in discussions with providers over identifying the right candidate.

He says: "We have had some real challenges in terms of getting suitable staff, but as a business we are very keen on professional development and it is good to give young people a bit of an opportunity and see what we can do with them."

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