Has anyone else heard that when you know what you want the outcome of a review to be, hire a consultant, but when you want an independent, evidence and data-driven consideration, you should ask an academic?

Like any binary view of the world, that’s a view to be cautious of, and for my friends and colleagues who are consultants, I hope you recognise good-natured humour for effect. It is, however, the phrase that came to mind when I read James Withers’ Independent Review of the Skills Delivery Landscape provided to Scottish Ministers earlier this month. That said, one of the only good things about getting old is learning to insert a pause, engaging brain first, mouth second. So having spent a week-and-a-half reading, reviewing, and discussing, I’m ready to demonstrate the remarkable restraint I have been working towards all these years.

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Before that, why do I care, and more importantly why should you care? Well, because Scotland stands directly in line of manufacturing and engineering opportunities that would eclipse the great industrial revolutions, and the biggest threat to missing that chance is our current lack of skills and our collective failure – so far - to change that situation for the future.

It’s a serious situation, the single biggest challenge for our sector, and one where demographics, retiral rates and competition for resource bring no comfort. Important to this consideration, the most critical skills in that shortage are those earned through work-based learning, almost exclusively through apprenticeships in our sector. In that context, the objective of the review is more than welcome, and for the most part the diagnosis of relevant issues is broadly correct.

If the ambition is welcomed and the diagnosis achieves pass marks, unfortunately for me after 10 days of review, the recommendations are not just a miss, but if implemented will push us further back, not forward.

It doesn’t help that throughout the report there is a lack of evidence or data to justify the recommendations identified, but it’s the substance of those that really misses the mark for many of the 15 structural and operational changes outlined. In the interests of brevity and restraint, I’d highlight just three examples that illustrate the deep concerns I hold for these.

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Firstly, the report calls for exploration of greater private sector investment in the post-school learning system and, in particular, the provision of in-work learning opportunities. In our sector the ratio of employer to Scottish Government funding for an apprentice is a ratio of 10 to one, with the individual tax take more than covering the government share each year. This circa £1 billion investment in supporting some 40,000 apprentices in training should also be considered against Scottish employers paying an apprenticeship levy contribution of possibly more than £200 million per annum, yet the total funding for apprenticeships from government represents less than 3% of Scotland’s total spend on skills – a fraction of that levy cost.

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The expectation that employers will be the go-to for additional skills investment fails to recognise either the current level of investment industry makes, or the fact that the expectation has long been that private industry will simply stretch beyond its resources, and that hasn’t worked. Just repeating that expectation is the very definition of doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome.

The second aspect to highlight is the call to dismantle Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the national skills agency. SDS like any organisation is not perfect, but as a public sector agency, it is respected in our industry as the constant and often lone champion of apprenticeships, an honest voice on what works and what does not and it is a firm believer in the need for employer-led demand and employer engagement in apprenticeship delivery. The loss of its experience and commitment in Scotland’s delivery of apprenticeships would be a blow, and distraction, at the time where our opportunities – and their fragility – are at their highest.

For my third and final example, I must declare a personal interest as I am a member of the employer-led Scottish Apprenticeships Advisory Board (SAAB) which, despite attracting praise in the review for the work it does, is recommended to be disbanded. Being part of a group of volunteers, I can say that it’s an unusual body for this type of group, as its output and impact is measurable and impactful, and that makes it immensely satisfying to be part of. The people who make it up are passionate about its purpose and will speak up about what works well and what doesn’t, even if that’s not what our government want to hear. It’s an example of diminishing the voice of the employer throughout the review, rather at odds with the need for a “business relationship reset” that we heard plenty about around the recent change of First Minister. Other voices are missing, with no acknowledgement of the place in our landscape for training groups and associations, training organisations embedded within companies, and an expectation to load colleges up with yet more responsibility without recognising their current financial fragility.

That takes me back to the point of my glib opening, as before the review was undertaken my concern was it would be simply a vehicle for the dismantling of SDS, and sure enough that is there. That concern was that SDS is recognised as willing to speak up as a critical friend, bringing risk, and whilst I didn’t foresee the recommendation to dissolve SAAB, I can see how its similar mission to speak truth to power might bring it into the same category. If removing dissenting voices from your circle of influence is the path to solving our skills crisis, then I am clearly missing something important, as the absence of diversity of thought, like any other measure of diversity, is seldom a winning strategy for any organisation.


Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering