Lessons from an LSIP

11 Dec 2023

Sara Williams OBE, Chief Executive of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, writes from her experience of having delivered a Local Skills Improvement Plan on the view on skills from the perspective of businesses in the region

Having  delivered a Local Skills Improvement Plan, Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce has learned much about the intersection of commerce and education and gained a closer view of the skills sector and how businesses use it. 

There is a conflation of education and training in discussions, which makes businesses feel powerless to make any impact on what is delivered as they do not understand the differences, what they could change, or for what they can ask.  Navigating a complex system is time consuming and so makes them less resilient, less innovative and much less willing to engage. 

Researching the LSIP, we found that, while talent gives companies a competitive edge, some feel they train this talent for the greater good and their competitors. They feel that the learners’ needs appear to be prioritised over those of the business. We also found companies who rarely offer staff training with qualifications or  take on apprentices as they do not understand the impact of this investment on their ambitions, although businesses generally recognise that they need to work with the supply side of the skills agenda (although often this is in schools) to influence what is delivered.  

The LSIP put employers’ views front and centre which is refreshing and a much needed approach. The Chambers’ role became that of interpreter and a trusted third party able to represent the diverse needs of different businesses – all were unhappy at the policies being made by relying on a few larger companies. Employers do not necessarily know which skills they need for the future as they do not know which direction the market will take. Many of our small and medium sized companies are, by the nature of their size, usually dealing with the here and now, so recruit when they have a need - and often only to fill an existing position. In a tight labour market, there is a realisation that they may have to invest in the skills they need, but this is not built into SMEs planning. They often have a hazy understanding of what “new” qualifications mean, and they don’t have time to take risks – so look instead for experienced staff.  

What is needed is a structured, clear, multifaceted skills infrastructure rather than the piecemeal, fragmented, duplicative, bureaucratic and fragmented system which currently exists.  It is difficult to balance or manage the differing priorities of learners, funders and business needs. The relationships involved are complex and  expectations are not always aligned, and for businesses this means that everything appears to happen very slowly. There are anomalies that arise, such as courses that are desired by businesses but attract few learners, or courses that are funded but are not what businesses want. 

Businesses’ needs should be aggregated and both supply and demand side helped to understand each other. Business representative bodies can do this, with educators and trainers, to match the provision with need. Led by the forward thinking of universities, this leads to a need-driven, future focused skills strategy, in line with what the local economy is now, what it can achieve in the short term and the for the future. This will lead learners and employers to new and resilient markets and will create a scaffolding for identifying and delivering future skills. A high level, devolved funding arrangement would enable providers in the ecosystem to flex, respond and deliver what is needed in the local economy in a timely manner. 

The development of microcredentials is an example of how this could work. In the LSIP they were recognised as a faster, adaptable range of programmes which, coupled with bite-sized, flexible units of accredited learning, can deliver quickly what employers need. They are a model for the partnership between learner, employer and provider and gives the right start for students and can re-skill adults. 

Throughout the LSIP there was emphasis on the need for soft skills. Employability options should include exposure to a working environment.  For students, work experience offers an intergenerational, diverse environment in which to establish working relationships; for businesses it is a fantastic chance to bring in new thinking which will be needed as the world changes.

Education and training are about more than skills - they change lives and businesses and shape the future – and will continue to do so as the country witnesses climate and societal change.

This is the greatest challenge for all, and the role of universities and colleges in delivering what is needed is one of the most crucial. 

Sara Williams OBE, Chief Executive of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce