Skills Strategy (Refresh)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 7th October 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:15 pm, 7th October 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7164, in the name of Keith Brown, on the refresh of the skills strategy. The debate is fully subscribed and no time is spare, so members will need to come in on the button, as it were.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 2:57 pm, 7th October 2010

The debate comes at an important time in Scotland's economic recovery. Growth returned to the economy at the end of 2009, but economic conditions remain fragile and considerable challenges are to be faced if we are to consolidate the recovery.

It is clear that skills are vital to recovery in all sectors of the economy. A key function of the Government is to create the right conditions for economic success, and skills policy is one of the strongest levers at our disposal. We held a constructive debate on skills in January, which sought to develop a consensus on the way forward at a time not just of significant challenge but of opportunity.

On Tuesday, I launched the refreshed skills strategy, "Skills for Scotland: Accelerating Recovery and Increasing Sustainable Economic Growth", which makes clear the Scottish Government's commitment to training and skills as we seek to accelerate recovery. I hope that members have had the opportunity to read and digest the strategy.

The consensus in Parliament was that more flexibility is needed in the skills system to reflect economic change. The Government is now setting out a flexible package of skills support. We all agree on the importance of modern apprenticeships. It is vital that the programme continues to provide people with the opportunity to gain the skills, training and experience that are needed to find sustained employment. It must also continue to provide businesses with the expertise that will help to drive future success.

Last year, more than 20,000 people started modern apprenticeships in Scotland—that is up by more than 90 per cent on starts in the previous year. The proportion of female starts also increased significantly, but work has still to be done to increase women's participation and achievement in a number of sectors, including information and communications technology. People in the ICT industry and in the banking industry have told me that they are keen for far more female graduates with an ICT background to come to them.

We will continue to promote accessibility and diversity in the modern apprenticeships programme and throughout other learning environments. This year, Skills Development Scotland has been set the target of delivering 20,000 modern apprenticeship starts and more than 40,000 training places in total. That figure includes 14,500 training places to help to support the unemployed to enter the labour market.

This year, SDS is also providing 5,000 flexible training opportunities that are designed to meet small employers' skills needs. During my visit to Gems Engineering Ltd in Glasgow on Tuesday, I saw at first hand the benefits of that flexible scheme, which is helping employers to enhance the skills of their staff and to bring real benefits to their businesses through improved productivity and a stronger and more confident workforce. As we move forward, we will continually seek to develop innovative models of skills support to encourage greater employer investment in skills.

The strategy also recognises the need for a flexible and responsive skills approach to new and emerging economic opportunities, including those in the low-carbon economy. The start of a new wind turbine modern apprenticeship framework at Carnegie College is an example of that.

In January, we agreed that the skills strategy should provide the support and opportunity for young people, including those who are traditionally the hardest to reach, to be successful. The threats from rising youth unemployment are clear. Since the start of the downturn, the Government has guarded against those threats.

In June, I announced a substantial programme of support for the large number of summer leavers from schools and colleges. It included a minimum of 800 targeted pathways opportunities; a new SDS one-stop shop providing guidance to employers on offering young people a chance to get started in the labour market; and a £1,000 incentive for employers recruiting a young apprentice who faces additional barriers that restrict their ability to participate. Those opportunities will be available throughout this financial year and will complement other support for young people, including the universal delivery of 16-plus learning choices and record investment in universities and colleges to provide more and better learning opportunities.

Since the summer, we have been working hard to help school leavers to secure a place in learning or training. We have also tasked ProjectScotland with working with SDS and partners in the voluntary sector to target volunteering opportunities at the summer leavers who are yet to secure positive destinations. Many young people have successfully taken up places in college or training; it is the right time to target volunteering places at those who are still in need.

I flag up the importance of the curriculum for excellence. We often talk about wanting our young people to be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. We will achieve that by ensuring that they can develop skills for learning and skills for life, as well as the skills that they need for work. We recognise that those skills can be taken forward across the curriculum and in all of the different environments in which a young person learns.

The strategy recognises the increasing number of unpaid adult carers and young carers in Scotland, who gain invaluable skills in carrying out their caring tasks. Many carers and older young carers—if I may call them that—also want to be supported to remain in employment, to access employment and to learn and gain new skills. The skills strategy and the carers and young carers strategies set out how we can help them to achieve that.

We wish to focus on employer need. This week we set out the ambition for a skills system that is driven by what the labour market most needs, rather than by what the skills system can most easily deliver. The commitments in the strategy will help to achieve that by placing greater focus on working together with employers better to understand and to assess the skills that they need to be successful, and by ensuring that the supply of skills can be responsive to those needs.

In January, we spoke about the need for an annual skills and training summit.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

I agree entirely that the system needs to be more demand led, rather than supply led. What specific measures has the Government taken to ensure that employers are engaged and listened to?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

There are a number of specific measures. I mentioned the summer leavers package, which we made a one-stop shop for employers. Instead of being bounced around a number of agencies, employers could access the available opportunities through a sole telephone line. The person on the other end of the phone was able to direct them to those opportunities without having to put them on to a different organisation, which made things easier.

Similarly, we have directed many of our new initiatives at small businesses. We recognise that it is more difficult to engage with a large number of employers. Although the strategy sets out the way in which we intend to do that, that work is not finished and there will be new measures to take it even further.

A partnership approach is vital. Annual summits offer a great opportunity to make ideas a reality. Last year, those ideas included the adopt and safeguard an apprentice schemes and the innovate with an apprentice two-for-one incentive for the life sciences sector. This year's summit helped to inform the structure and content of the strategy that we are debating today. I particularly welcome the support that was received at the summits from John Park, who is not in the chamber, and David Whitton, who is. We will continue to support that collaborative approach.

I turn to the subject of simplification. As I have just said in response to Gavin Brown, I am aware that some employers have experienced difficulties in the past when trying to engage with the skills system, which is why simplification is a priority theme of the strategy. Through it, we set out a range of initiatives that will help to ensure that the system is more coherent and accessible both for individuals and for employers.

It is a national strategy, but we recognise that local challenges are faced around the country. We would all agree that the best people to make decisions at local level are those who work at local level. The strategy sets out our intention to ensure better alignment between national agencies, community planning partnerships and local employability and economic groups. In doing that, we can ensure that services are properly targeted to match the different needs of residents and employers in local areas.

The United Kingdom Government looks set to reduce funding to the sector skills councils significantly, as part of its wider reforms to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Even before cuts and reform begin, there have been impacts on Scotland. Skillsmart Retail has already reduced its presence in Scotland, and Cogent and SEMTA—the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies—have switched responsibility for life sciences in Scotland. Both of those moves were made with no prior consultation of Scottish stakeholders. That is unacceptable, as has been made clear to the chief executive officers of the SSCs concerned.

Against the backdrop of severe funding cuts, we still expect UKCES and the SSCs to retain some responsibility for functions that are critically important for Scotland, and we will ensure that Scotland's needs and expectations are clearly articulated around delivery of those functions. If other SSCs reduce their presence in Scotland, we will not hesitate to take radical and practical steps to ensure that the voice of our employers is heard across the Scottish skills system.

The refreshed strategy is published at a time of significant challenge for the public sector. We will know more about future budgets next month, but our priority for skills will continue to be around providing individuals with the support that they need to find sustainable and productive employment.

There is no doubt that skills and training are a point of shared commitment across the Parliament. We are all determined to get it right for the benefit of our young people as they move into the labour market for the first time, for the benefit of those who are already in the labour market and who seek to upskill and stay in work, and for the benefit of employers who are seeking to take advantage of new opportunities and to increase profits.

Today's debate offers an opportunity to reach across political boundaries and achieve consensus on the right way forward for skills at a time not just of significant challenge but of opportunity.

Members from across the Parliament have made a strong contribution to the skills debate. The Government has listened, and we have now responded. Indeed, most of the points that were made by Opposition members during the previous skills debate have been addressed in the skills strategy.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the refreshed Skills for Scotland skills strategy and agrees that the principles of flexibility, responsiveness and partnership working are critical to meeting Scotland's skills needs and accelerating economic recovery.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 3:08 pm, 7th October 2010

I am delighted to take part in this debate and to speak to the amendment in my name. I welcome the publication of the refreshed skills strategy—at last—and I thank the minister for having taken the time to discuss the contents with me previously.

The subject of skills—the lack of them in some quarters and the provision of them in others—and the continuing debate on how to finance provision of training are among the most pressing issues facing Scotland today. As I have said in previous debates, I do not believe that skills should be a political football, so I welcome the reannouncement on volunteering. If memory serves, we heard all about the 1,000 places in the summer. As we are now in October, it would be useful if the minister could tell us, when he winds up the debate, how many places have been taken up.

We are heading into challenging financial waters, when every budget line will come under scrutiny. Our number 1 focus should remain the growth of the Scottish economy.

Only yesterday I read in The Herald that vacancies in engineering, science and manufacturing companies are costing Scotland £10 million a year in lost productivity, according to the sector skills council, SEMTA. Elsewhere in the newspaper was a prediction that Scotland could have a jobs bonanza from £19 billion of work to decommission oil rigs, which would present thousands of opportunities. The bulk of that work is anticipated to come in the decade 2017 to 2027, so youngsters who are currently at school who are thinking about what career they might follow could become the well-trained workforce to take advantage of those opportunities. We should not forget that.

On reading through the document it is heartening to see that many of the skills and skills training issues that Labour has raised in the past have been recognised, so instead of dwelling on the fact that two previous attempts to devise a skills strategy were rejected by Parliament, I will celebrate a case of third time lucky. I accept that there has been progress.

Support for employers and simplifying the skills system are steps in the right direction. Scotland's skills base has improved considerably, but that has still not translated into higher productivity and economic growth. Increasing the skill levels of the labour force at all levels is the way to do that.

If we want to achieve a smart, successful Scotland, we must face facts: we need to change, do things differently and be ready to listen to what employers are saying. As I said earlier, there is a lot of potential, despite the current economic situation. As the world looks beyond fossil fuels to meet its power generation needs, Scotland could and should be at the forefront of that transformation. Given Scotland's incredible natural resources, its long tradition of technological excellence and its supportive business environment, the country's renewables sector is ripe for investment.

We already have a successful oil and gas sector, and the emerging benefits from a low-carbon economy could change our economic landscape, but do we have the skills to take it forward? The answer is that we have some of them but, as SEMTA has identified, we need a lot more of them, and we need to be much clearer in highlighting to jobseekers of all ages where the best opportunities for a lasting career lie.

Only this morning, I attended a conference with the minister on partnership action for continuing employment, at which I heard about a programme that was organised through Forth Valley College that upskilled a number of unemployed engineers, many in their 40s, to work in the oil and gas sector. A 41-year-old ex-Army heavy goods vehicle mechanic was a successful graduate of that course, as a result of which he felt that he had a job for life. The key from the college's point of view was that it looked for areas in which it knew there were job opportunities.

If we are to grow employment in the low-carbon economy over the next 10 years, we need schools, colleges and universities to focus on delivering people who have the qualifications to develop the skills that that new industry requires. There is a constant cry for more school pupils to study maths and the sciences to the highest levels. Knowledge of those subjects is the key to a good career in the green jobs of the future, and pupils need to know and be enthused about that.

We also need to think differently and to listen to what employers have to say. Recently, I met Aberdeen house builder Stewart Milne, whose company has created the UK's first zero-carbon home. Mr Milne believes in training—after all, he was an apprentice—but in his expert opinion, the traditional view of construction skills is changing. He believes that for the future, instead of concentrating on single skills, we should multiskill our apprentices to take account of changing construction methods. He is not alone in thinking that.

SELECT, Scotland's trade association for the electrical, electronics and communications systems industry, is taking a significant stake in the future with the establishment of the Scottish environmental technologies training centre just outside Edinburgh. It, too, believes that upskilling can be just as important as new jobs. The training environment, which has been facilitated by heating business Vaillant and Skills Development Scotland, will bring electricians, heating engineers and plumbers up to date with the latest developments in energy-saving technology.

Last week, I met representatives of the Adam Smith College in Fife and toured its new extension at the Stenton campus, which offers world-class training facilities in construction, renewables and the energy sector, among others—and it was self-funded. Together with other partners such as Carnegie College in Rosyth, it is creating a renewables cluster to make Fife the leading centre for training in new industries such as wind and wave turbine construction and associated technologies.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I am sure that Mr Whitton would want to recognise that although that facility was largely self-funded, the Scottish Government made a contribution to it. Does he agree that its defining feature is the flexibility that it offers with regard to the skills that could be developed in that environment? As he said, multiskilling will be essential, and that unit has been designed specifically to allow such training to take place.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

I fully agree. As we toured round, I was extremely impressed as it was explained to me how that can be achieved.

I have now met representatives of quite a few colleges—as, I am sure, the minister has—all of whom have made the same comment about a certain lack of flexibility on the part of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. Matching funding with priorities and reducing costs by encouraging closer collaboration between higher and further education institutions and employers will bring benefits, but in many cases the Scottish funding council is slow to react.

In its manifesto for Scotland, the Confederation of British Industry takes it all back to basics. For it, the literacy and numeracy standards of new employees remain a concern for Scotland's employers, who look to Government for solutions. Should not it be a given that good standards of literacy and numeracy permeate all aspects of education? How can young people spend hours on Facebook and work new mobile phones within minutes of getting them, but cannot hold a proper conversation or, in some cases, read and write? For sectors such as the retail, travel and tourism sectors and even the financial services sector, it is vital that our young people develop what are known as the soft skills—the ability to communicate, turn up to work on time and show confidence by looking people in the eye when they talk to them, for example. Too many youngsters leave school without those basic skills.

In my constituency, the construction and engineering firm Carillion sponsors a programme called Tigers Ltd—training initiatives generating effective results Scotland—which puts youngsters on a 26-week get ready for work scheme. That scheme gives them a taster of all the construction trades. The prize for those who complete the course is a guaranteed apprenticeship with Carillion or one of its subcontractors. We need more big employers to engage in that way.

Scotland's wealth as a nation and our ability to create a more inclusive society in which poverty and deprivation are tackled depend on economic growth and on improving our productivity and employment. In difficult times, public funding must be prioritised to deal with employability, basic skills and those who face severe disadvantages in the labour market. We also need to provide rather than take away support to businesses that give young people jobs, apprenticeships or internships. There must be tailored training for a wide range of sectors to help people to get a foot on the career ladder. Such training will mean that employer demands can be met across a wide range of sectors. Large and small employers need to be central to the skills agenda, and systems need to be aligned to labour market needs, such as in the Forth valley example.

We must accept that Scotland is facing demographic changes that will impact on our labour market. More than 20 per cent of the working population are between 16 and 25 years old, compared with 29 per cent who are between 50 and 64 years old. Some 24 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are unemployed. It is vital that we improve the school leavers who enter employment rate through better targeted training and careers advice. Although higher education is important, it should not be considered to be the only route to a successful career; the vocational route can also reap rewards.

The refreshed skills strategy outlines the way forward, but it will need to be kept under close scrutiny and be ready to respond to changes in demand.

I move amendment S3M-7164.1, to insert at end:

", and calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that there is sustained investment in skills training to meet the recognised demand for a well skilled, well trained workforce."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 3:17 pm, 7th October 2010

Earlier this week, I received a telephone message from my education researcher to check that I had noticed one of that morning's main headlines. That headline said "Browne to unveil the most radical blueprint for a generation". My researcher alerted me to the fact that he had been so impressed by that that the information was on my desk. I hurried in to work only to find that the Browne to whom he had been referring was the one from Madingley with the additional letter, or indeed letters, after his name. Instead, I would have to content myself with "Skills for Scotland: Accelerating the Recovery and Increasing Sustainable Economic Growth". Compared with the 2007 document, that document has lost its gloss, but it is obviously destined for a much wider readership, as we are told that it is now available in eight languages. I will not presume to tell members which language it is best in. Was that document to be the most radical blueprint for a generation? Be ready to stand by for empowerment, support, simplification and strength.

To be fair, the Scottish Government is right when it says that levels of employment and productivity are clearly the benchmarks by which we can most easily measure the success and growth of an economy. We must all recognise the estimate of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which says that a 1 per cent increase in productivity equates to a growth in the economy of almost £1 billion. Facts like those should be keeping the minister and his colleagues awake at night. We should consider that Scotland's productivity rate is almost 5 per cent lower than the UK average. That, combined with the fact that the Scottish unemployment rate is rising three times faster than the rate in England, demonstrates how vital it is to have a skills agenda. That is why the Scottish Conservatives believe, as our amendment states, that a great deal more has to be done to ensure that the supply of skills matches what employers demand.

That task is not easy. Given the pace of technological development, we have little idea of what jobs will be available 15 or 20 years down the line. However, the task is not helped if we cannot embrace a more imaginative approach. Nora Senior, vice chair of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said recently:

"There needs to be a whole-scale change to the way we talk about vocational and academic qualifications" and—as Mr Whitton has just indicated—to how we prepare our young people for the world of work. That view chimes with many other people in business and academia, and with what the Scottish Conservatives have been saying for some time.

On pages 15 to 20 of the skills strategy, the Scottish Government says what it has achieved since 2007. Yes, there has been a little progress, but I see little sign so far of a fundamental change in our thinking. It is not enough to have initiatives here and there and to tinker around the edges. There has to be a radical overhaul of skills development, just as we are planning a radical overhaul of higher education.

Let me set out what needs to be done and let me again tackle the elephant in the room, which is the question whether too many young people feel pressured to go to university because there are insufficient opportunities for a non-university based education. I appreciate that the skills strategy outlines 15,000 modern apprenticeship starts—that is good, but there is a strong case to be made that many of those opportunities are coming too late in life.

On this side of the chamber, we are firmly of the view that there needs to be more diversity of opportunity from the age of 14 onwards and that, in terms of the curriculum, comprehensive education is not appropriate beyond secondary 2. In other words, there should be a clearly defined two-route system from age 14 onwards, in which young people are able to choose the form and type of education that they would like to continue with, be it largely skills focused or more weighted in favour of academic pursuits. That is a system that has proven to be incredibly successful in countries such as Denmark, Germany and Finland. Germany, for example, is experiencing an export-led economic recovery, where the Bundesbank—

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Does Elizabeth Smith recognise the extent to which schools are already providing opportunities for vocational learning at 14, 15 and 16? I appreciate that not every school and not every local authority is doing it. However, is she saying that we should direct schools to do it, or that schools should choose to do it?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Schools should be able to choose. For example, at Kirkcudbright academy in Dumfriesshire there is a highly imaginative programme of curricular change. At the moment, though, the whole system is a comprehensive system, although obviously it is going through a review in terms of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. We need to diversify that system—it is instrumental in getting the skills right. There has been progress, but there has not been sufficient joined-up thinking about ensuring that schools, colleges, universities and the world of work can work together.

Angela Knight, who is chief executive of the British Bankers Association, rightly recommends that we need to improve the quality of the careers advice that we give to S1 and S2 pupils, notwithstanding the excellent advice that is already around in our schools. In too many cases, teenagers are not given sufficient access to all the information that they need to make an informed choice—a choice that can, after all, make or break a career.

While I am on the theme of getting it right at the earliest stage, I urge the Government—yet again—to provide leadership when it comes to literacy and numeracy. I know that we expect a statement on 27 October, but please let that include measures to address the inadequacies of basic skills in primary school and of trainee teachers, who have identified gaps in their own ability to teach those skills.

If the overriding objective is to provide an economy that is fit for the challenges of the 21st century—an economy with high levels of employment and the highest levels of productivity—we must not ignore the demands of business or the concerns of employers.

I move amendment S3M-7164.2, to insert at end:

" and calls on the Scottish Government to fully engage employers in the process of ensuring that the system is more demand-led and that publicly funded training matches far more closely the needs of employers."

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 3:24 pm, 7th October 2010

I am pleased that Parliament has another opportunity to discuss a most important matter.

In 2007, the Liberal Democrats did not support the skills strategy that had been laid before Parliament. There were many reasons for that: there were no real targets, no clear ways of monitoring progress and no real accountability. It has taken the Government another three years to come forward with this refreshed strategy, largely because of a call from Parliament in January.

In the debate in January, we condemned the on-going confusion, bureaucracy and expense that had been brought about by Skills Development Scotland. We raised concerns about the Scottish Government's removal of funding specifically for skills for work courses, and about uncertainty about future funding of the determined to succeed programme.

We on the Liberal Democrat benches are serious about skills and about providing a future for Scotland and its workforce. I know that that aspiration is shared across the chamber: we are all serious about ensuring that access to skills support and training are available to the fullest range of Scots including, as the minister said, carers—young carers in particular—disabled Scots and others who have historically been marginalised from such services.

As we emerge from recession we will need an able and skilled workforce that is ready for the new industries and challenges of the future. We are critical of the skills strategy refresh because we still have many of our original concerns. Where are the measurable targets or outcomes? The strategy claims to establish high-level targets for Skills Development Scotland on its national training programmes, yet the targets are not new but targets that the Government had already set. That is disappointing, especially as it is so obvious that a clear, concise and cost-effective strategy is needed. A report earlier this year by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills concluded:

"Current employment and skills systems in Scotland are neither fully integrated and consistent, nor always sufficiently aligned to labour market needs."

The Government needs to recognise—with action rather than words—that Scotland is still facing very difficult times and real uncertainty. Businesses are still experiencing difficulties and people are still losing their jobs. Last month's labour market statistics showed that unemployment in Scotland has risen to 8.9 per cent, which is well above the UK average of 7.8 per cent. Right now, we need to work to maximise and improve the skills of our workforce so that the economy can not only recover but support sustainable growth in the future.

Skills are needed across the board, from basic literacy and numeracy to degree level. David Whitton was right to focus on the need for soft skills. I might not have put it in exactly the terms that he did in talking about our young people, because all of us will come into contact with young people who are ready and willing to take on the opportunities and challenges of the job market, but we are all struggling to turn the tide after Labour's mismanagement of the economy.

The Government must realise that real training for real people is what is important. We have already heard, rightly, that flexible on-the-ground action is what matters to individuals who lose their jobs and need to gain new skills. That is what matters to a generation of young people who are struggling to gain college places, and it is what matters to our apprentices and businesses. Expensive quangos, excessive red tape and cuts to skills programmes that actually work are the actions so far of the Government.

Ministers found the funding to establish Skills Development Scotland and they found the cash to increase its budget to a total of £202 million. It is interesting to note that in 2009-10 SDS spent £1,484,000 on marketing—£200,000 more than it spent in 2008-09—but it removed the specific funding for skills for work courses and the school and college partnerships.

We all agree that many young people are better suited to, and more interested in, vocational education. We need to ensure that their needs and aspirations are met, so we welcome the review of all vocational education and training. I speak not only as a member of this Parliament but as the mother of two new graduates who are trying to find work, taking on unpaid internships and keen to find the opportunities that many of us took for granted when we left university and school.

As I have said before, it is young people who have been hit hardest by the shrinking jobs market. Graduates and school leavers, as well as those who are most at risk of falling behind in skills terms, are unable to find jobs, and young people are generally the first to be made redundant from companies on a last-in, first-out approach.

Our young people are bearing too much of the burden of the recession, with the number of 18 to 24-year-olds unemployed for more than 12 months having increased fivefold in the past two years. We cannot allow that to continue. I would be very interested in hearing what progress has been made to meet the needs of the summer leavers. The minister was right to talk about the inputs, which we welcome. It might be too early, but it would be very helpful if we could get some idea of how successful they have been.

The Scottish Government news release on the refreshed strategy boasts about the new wind turbine modern apprenticeships scheme at Carnegie College—the minister also mentioned that today. That is the scheme that Tavish Scott highlighted at First Minister's question time last month when he questioned the First Minister about the fact that, to secure its apprenticeships, Siemens was made to traipse around Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Government skills department, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and the SQA. Most of us would agree that that is not conducive to meeting the needs of business. Given the economic reality that we face, we must look at whether the skills quangos and organisations that we have in place are fit for purpose and fit for business. We need to spend a shrinking budget as wisely and as smartly as possible.

A few months ago, I undertook a business survey, the results of which I shared with Jim Mather. It was clear that many of the businesses that I surveyed did not feel that the skills organisations were listening to them and engaging with them properly; they felt that there were barriers in place and that the process was not one with which they would immediately think about engaging. A lot more work must be done to ensure that it is as easy as possible for businesses to do that.

We must work to ensure that, as Scotland comes through the recession and business and enterprise gain strength, we have a workforce with the necessary skills to ensure that Scotland not only remains competitive but excels in the future.

I move amendment S3M-7164.3, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"notes the publication of the refreshed Skills for Scotland skills strategy, three years after the original strategy was rejected by the Parliament; regrets the confusion and bureaucracy in the Scottish Government's approach to the skills system and meeting the needs of the key economic sectors and industries of the future, and believes that the priority given by the Scottish Government to the new centralised skills quango, Skills Development Scotland, which has £22 million of administrative expenses, has not added any clarity to the Scottish Government's skills agenda."

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I remind members that they have a very tight six minutes in which to speak and that, if they do not stick to their time, I will cut them off. If I do not do so, I will have to drop Linda Fabiani.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 3:30 pm, 7th October 2010

In that case, I shall be brief. First, I apologise that I will have to miss some of the debate due to a meeting that I must have on behalf of some constituents who have been in touch with me about a pressing local issue. I intend, however, to be back for the closing speeches.

The refreshed skills strategy is, first and foremost, a recognition of reality. The original 2007 strategy is useful and wide-ranging. Needless to say, however, the economic climate has changed so dramatically since then that it would be remiss not to return to it in light of the circumstances. We have a pressing responsibility to ensure that Scotland's real and present skills needs are met. As the report says, the purpose of the strategy has not changed in the past three years, but the scale of the challenge has increased as a result of the economic depression.

In any case, there could scarcely be a more important subject for us to revisit than this. The strategy is about accelerating economic recovery in Scotland. More to the point, it is about improving the life chances of thousands of individual Scots.

The commitment to 20,000 modern apprenticeships and a total of 40,000 training opportunities this year is impressive. As well as 15,000 modern apprenticeship starts there will be, among other opportunities, 5,000 all-age modern apprenticeships. That will be particularly appreciated in my part of Scotland, among many others, because in those areas it is often people in a slightly older age group in the workforce who need new skills, rather than those who are in the age groups that are covered by more traditional apprenticeships.

In marked contrast to all that stands the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of Labour's record in government on apprenticeships. Between 2004-05 and 2007-08, Labour presided over a year-on-year reduction in the number of new apprenticeship starts, which declined from 21,349 to 15,772 over that period.

The Scottish Government is now, however, devoting real attention to upskilling the Scottish workforce, recognising that the only way for Scotland to make a speedy exit from the economic downturn is for us to be globally competitive. That is reflected in the fact that, despite the pressure on Scotland's budget, the Government has devoted an extra £75.5 million to lifelong learning in this year's budget.

That investment is paying off. By anybody's measure, Scotland's skills position has strengthened since 2007. Just as the percentage of the population with a degree has increased, so has the percentage with mid-level qualifications. Perhaps even more significant, the percentage of the population with no qualifications has decreased. That trend will have to continue if we are serious about changing the kind of economy that Scotland is, even within the limitations of the fairly short economic levers that presently are at Scotland's disposal.

It is likely that ours will increasingly be an economy in which it will not be easy to get a job without qualifications of some kind. People who have become unemployed in, perhaps, semi-skilled work will struggle to find such work available to them in future. The needs of people in that situation, whatever their age, must not be overlooked. That means that there is a constant need to provide training, skills and qualifications.

To achieve that continuous improvement, the strategy places an emphasis on four areas: empowering people, to ensure that they have the opportunity to access the right advice, support and opportunities; supporting employers, by better understanding and assessing the skills that they need for future success, and ensuring that the supply of skills, training and qualifications can be responsive to that; simplifying the skills system, to ensure that it is more coherent and easy to understand; and strengthening partnerships and collective responsibility between the public, private and third sectors.

Broad though those headings sound in themselves, it is clear that the strategy points to specific measures that are, in turn, aligned towards addressing a problem that Scotland has not yet solved: translating the increase in the skills base into higher productivity and economic growth. If that tells us anything, it is that, despite progress, we still have a long way to go. Scotland will be looking closely at the UK Government's 2010 spending review for many reasons, one of which is that Scotland needs to know what impact decisions that are made at Westminster will have in the longer term on what Scotland has to spend on skills and training. The false economy of cutting too deep and too quickly would be illustrated if the Westminster Government created more pressure on the budgets that we allocate to the very activities—the provision of skills and training—that are most likely to bring our economy out of recession.

The Scottish Government has produced a reinvigorated skills strategy that is designed to take account of Scotland's changed economic circumstances. It is a blueprint for proactive Government action. It deserves the support of this Parliament.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour 3:35 pm, 7th October 2010

I am pleased to take part in this debate. We are now in a very different world to that which we lived in when the skills strategy was first published in

2007. As the Liberal amendment reminds us, at that time, there were concerns that the strategy would not measure up to the task. We have welcomed the efforts to refresh and refocus the strategy. The economic challenges that Scotland now faces, and which it will face over the coming years, are greater than in 2007. If the skills strategy is to deliver everything that we need it to deliver, increased focus, greater effort and sustained investment will be demanded of it.

From reading the refreshed strategy, it is clear that we have a lot to do. There are advantages to offering a wide range of services and providers, but it can also lead to confusion, particularly for employers and employees, those returning to the workplace and those leaving formal education. I very much agree that the principles of flexibility, responsiveness and partnership working that the Government has outlined are key to making the strategy work, but I have concerns that those principles are not being met as they could be. We still have some way to go before we have a coherent, simplified and unified approach to qualifications in particular, and to engagement with the learner and provider.

The refreshed strategy presents a complicated landscape. I welcome the section on simplifying the skills system, but I would like that to become a central focus for Skills Development Scotland. Unfortunately, there has been slow progress in addressing that, the reasons for which need to be identified. If there are barriers to greater partnership working, they must be addressed. The aims of improving accessibility and providing better information, advice and guidance are all crucial to making the skills agenda real and achievable for the learner.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Does Claire Baker acknowledge that some of the confusion that she rightly mentions is due to the respective roles of Jobcentre Plus and Skills Development Scotland? Is she aware that there is now a lot more joint working than used to be the case? Would she support the further integration of the two bodies, even to the point that one assimilates the other, such that the functions of Jobcentre Plus are taken over by a Scottish-led consortium?

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

The minister mentions one example where he believes that there could be simplification; my concern is the plethora of different providers and agencies. We need to take a much more strategic look at how we can improve the overall system.

Although the strategy is welcome, I found it hugely frustrating, and at times impenetrable. There is a menu of skills providers. If we had started with a clean slate, I am sure that provision would not look like it does at present. Everything has developed at different rates, responded to different needs and got different levels of funding. The recognition that lifelong learning is integral to modern industry is fairly recent. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of partners to simplify and streamline the service. Doing so would ultimately be of benefit to the learner. Providers cannot be protectionist; they must work together better if we are to be successful.

Our skills base in Scotland has improved. The trade unions have been at the forefront of pushing the agenda. They know that skills development promotes employment and growth and that we continue to have significant gaps in the workforce that cost us contracts and development. In its report "Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth for Scotland", the UK Commission for Employment and Skills said:

"By global standards, Scotland has too large a group of low skilled and unskilled people, alongside a relatively strong proportion of people with high level skills, with a very narrow 'waist' of Intermediate Skills"— the skills that are vital if we are to attract and retain new sectors and investment.

The college sector plays a critical role in closing that gap, but are we really making best use of opportunities? For many learners, there is no seamless path from the workplace to further education or higher education. There also needs to be greater commitment to articulation paths. There are some good examples, but there is also too much resistance to the recognition of some qualifications. I know that there is a strong need to protect excellence, but there is also a need to recognise that excellence resides not just in one place or institution.

There must also be greater coherence around some of the key growth sectors and upcoming economic opportunities. There are some good examples of that. In Fife, we have recently seen the opening of Adam Smith College's new future skills centre in Glenrothes, which will focus on engineering, construction, renewables and science. I am pleased that that ambitious and forward-thinking centre has been recognised by members throughout the chamber. A new Forth crossing is also being planned, and we want to ensure that Fife and Scotland are able to take full advantage of the opportunities and start planning. The reality, however, is that we must deliver now for those upcoming opportunities.

We all continue to make the case for the aircraft carriers at Rosyth. Rosyth provides a good example of how highly skilled people can work together with employers to secure contracts and present an unrivalled workforce. That has been achieved through trade unions, employers, colleges, training providers and Government all working together to ensure that those people have the right set of skills in the right place at the right time.

We need to be clear that the additional investment in modern apprenticeships and training places is targeted and strategic. I have welcomed the additional places that have been provided for colleges over the past few years, which have tried to meet the increasing demand and offer opportunities for those who face unemployment. However, that investment has often been delivered on fairly short timescales. It would be good to have some evaluation of that funding; it cannot just be about addressing a short-term problem. Those places must deliver for the future demands of our economy.

Like Margaret Smith, I make a more general plea for effective evaluation and measuring of targets. The refreshed strategy certainly says a lot, but it contains only two paragraphs on monitoring and evaluation. As it says,

"There is a collective responsibility for implementing this strategy", but we need to be confident about demonstrating that it is delivering.

We face difficult financial times, and we all agree on the importance of skills. The challenge in the coming months and years will be to secure all partners to the commitment that, although the skills agenda is not necessarily the cheap option, it is the right one and the smart one.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 3:42 pm, 7th October 2010

I welcome the refresh of the skills strategy and the new focus on delivering across the board. I like the fact that Scotland's economic recovery is reinforcing the strategy, and creating more opportunities for Scotland to flourish is paramount to that recovery.

I was pleased to hear the news that there is to be a review of post-16 education and vocational training, which is due to report by March next year. The value of employer-linked vocational education cannot be overestimated. As a former vocational training officer, I am very interested in it. There is an issue that Willy Roe might look at, which could help us to address the skills shortages in some areas.

It may sound a little off-key for the debate, and a bit separate from what we are discussing, but I think that there may be some gender issues to be addressed in the provision of training. There is a traditional view of which jobs should be done by women and which by men, which is, to a great extent, cemented in place by social pressures. It shines through in the gender balance of trainees. Recent statistics from Skills Development Scotland show a definite divide between the genders in the national training programmes. Agriculture and horticulture are overwhelmingly male dominated, as are construction and engineering. Business administration, health and social care are dominated by female trainees, as are dental nursing and hairdressing.

I do not imagine nor pretend to believe that even the current Government can change that situation overnight, but it needs to be changed as quickly as possible. Perhaps it would be appropriate for the review to examine the gender issue. I hope that it will, as equality, flexibility and the distribution of skills throughout the population will help to close the skills gaps. We should look at the stereotypical picture of the boys being builders and the girls being hairdressers. It would be nice to see more female engineers and good to see a few more male dental nurses. When we stop thinking of certain jobs being men's jobs or women's jobs, we will perhaps be a fair and balanced economy and nation. That would help us to go a bit further towards seeing all jobs as equal and all workers as having equal validity.

The briefing that we received from Scotland's Colleges highlights an important point that bears repeating. Scotland is fairly well served with people who have high skill levels and has too large a number of people with no or low skill levels, which leaves too small a number of people with intermediate skills. We must tackle that problem as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. We need high-quality training in those intermediate skills. We must pay up to ensure that the training is high quality, but the public purse does not extend to infinity, so the training must be delivered within the tight and tightening budgets that we face.

I am glad that we have made a start on that. As Alasdair Allan said, the number of apprenticeships has been rising since 2007, following a decline in the preceding years. The number reduced from more than 21,000 in 2004 to fewer than 16,000 in 2006-07. The number is on its way back up, but we should never be complacent and we should continue to strive to provide as many training places, apprenticeships and other places as possible. Much of our success or otherwise in that will, of course, depend on what money Mr Swinney has for doling out. I am sure that he will divulge the amounts in the fullness of time, as any Government would.

While the cabinet secretary is considering that and while the review of post-16 education is doing its job, we should consider whether the modern apprenticeships that are on offer are the ones that are needed to fit the skills gaps now and whether they will provide the necessary skills in the workforce for future years. Perhaps we can call on Skills Development Scotland to report to Parliament on that. If courses that are being offered at public expense are not delivering the skills sets that we will need, perhaps we can change and update them and provide others that are more appropriate. We must be ready when the recession ends. We must not fall into the trap that we fell into in the 1980s and 1990s, when we were not ready and lost business and investment as a result.

While that is being done, we should consider how training providers are policed and how we can ensure that they deliver appropriate training to those in their schemes, particularly when the trainees are youngsters. We should also consider how we can ensure that we get value for public money and that trainees are learning skills that will benefit them personally and society generally.

There is still a long way to go, but I believe that we are walking down the right road. We will see what the fiscal tightening and the review bring us. I hope that, as soon as we get the report of that review, we are prepared to begin looking straight away for the next way of improving the skills sets of Scotland's population.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 3:46 pm, 7th October 2010

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and the publication of the refreshed skills strategy, although it has been a long time coming. However, I find the continued use of the political rhetoric that is splattered through the document to be a little inappropriate. As much as I might agree with statements attacking the United Kingdom Government, they are surely more suited to today's debate than to a Scottish Government document that seeks to promote and advance skills. In addition, the document is rather repetitive, and at times seems more descriptive than strategic. That said, I agree with the broad thrust of the strategy and with many of the Government initiatives that seek to develop and enhance skills in Scotland.

Given the current economic and employment environment, the need for ensuring that our workforce is properly skilled has never been greater. If we are to rebuild the Scottish economy, we must ensure that our workforce has a set of skills that match and respond to the requirements of Scottish businesses and the public sector. We must also ensure that the workforce is equipped with skills that are transferable and flexible. The new curriculum for excellence, if properly implemented, will provide a sound basis for the development of such a workforce over the long term. It will develop not only skills and knowledge, but more confident and adaptable learners. I welcome the strategy's focus on developing skills that will allow Scotland to take a leading role in the new renewable energy industry. We must grasp that real opportunity.

David Whitton mentioned the frustration that many colleges feel in relation to the Scottish funding council. I know that my local colleges—Coatbridge College and Motherwell College—feel that there is a need to review the way in which FE funding is distributed. I support their call for a greater share of that funding to come to Lanarkshire. Colleagues will not be surprised to hear me repeat a key fact in relation to the funding of Lanarkshire colleges, which is that, at present, for every £5 that is spent in Glasgow on further education, only £2 is spent in Lanarkshire, which has a similar size of population and faces similar difficult social problems.

The refreshed skills strategy highlights the importance of simplifying the skills system and strengthening partnerships. I fully agree with those priorities. There must be greater partnership working between our schools, colleges and employers. As I have mentioned in previous debates, one of my local schools, Caldervale high school, has proven how that approach can work in practice by forging strong links with Coatbridge College and Motherwell College. Coatbridge College offers higher psychology within the school and provides training in child care, motor mechanics, hairdressing, and beauty and make-up. That kind of flexibility and partnership working needs to be replicated in schools and colleges throughout Scotland.

I highlight to the minister the work that North Lanarkshire Council is doing to develop the skills of 16 and 17-year-olds. The extra pair of hands project, which is run and funded by the council and partners, follows the model used in the future jobs fund, which is of course for people aged 18 and over. The project has enabled 200 young people to have six-month job placements, most of them in the private sector. The skills strategy recognises the need to engage with that age group, so I commend that approach to the minister.

I want to say a few words about the important role that the trade unions can play in supporting workplace learning and developing skills. Through the Scottish union learning fund, trade union learning officers are given the training and support that they require to begin the process of engaging with their colleagues and identifying education and training opportunities.

It is often a challenge to find the resources that are needed to provide the education and training that workers require, at a time and in a venue that suits them. That is where the partnership between the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, Unite, Stow College and employers has been a tremendous success. Through genuine working partnerships between those bodies, Scottish workers have been provided with educational opportunities that are both shift friendly and accessible at work.

Employers are playing their part by providing space and facilities for educational development. A good example is the establishment of seven rail union learning centres through a partnership with First ScotRail. Last year, I had the privilege of opening the new union learning centre at Waverly station. With Stow College as the provider, workers are offered courses including basic literacy and numeracy, modern languages and computing. Those courses are provided free to trade union members at a time that is convenient for them.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Karen Whitefield has mentioned employers and trade unions. Does she recognise that this Government has increased the amount that is given to trade union learning, and has also increased the amount that is available through European funding, which has increased the pot?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

I welcome what the Government has done to date. However, it is not good enough that we continue to rely on European funding. That system will shortly collapse, so we need a real commitment from the Scottish Government to sustain the model that the trade unions that I mentioned have rolled out across the country. I hope that the minister can give us such a commitment.

Improving the skills of the Scottish workforce and making them flexible and relevant to the 21st century is an ambition to which I am sure we can all subscribe. I hope that on this important issue we can all work in partnership to ensure that Scotland has a thriving and dynamic economy in the years to come.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 3:53 pm, 7th October 2010

I am pleased to be speaking in this debate, because it gives me an opportunity to welcome the publication of the refreshed skills strategy and highlight the work that is being carried out in Adam Smith College in Glenrothes and Leven, to which David Whitton and Claire Baker have referred.

It is worth pointing out again the Government's commitment and investment of the record sum of £1.77 billion in further and higher education, with 40,000 training opportunities, 20,000 modern apprenticeships and 14,500 training places to support unemployed people. That represents a considerable investment. Through the skills strategy, there is an opportunity for the Scottish funding council and Skills Development Scotland to ensure not only that we are investing in the right kind of skills but that the investment is targeted to where those skills are needed most, such as in the renewable energy industry, and in the areas that would benefit most.

Christina McKelvie made particularly good points about the need to identify the skill sets of the future. Our problem is that in identifying those skill sets, we need also to recognise that there are skill sets that are needed here and now to enable us to attract investment in, for example, the Fife energy park and to enable people to work on the new Forth bridge and the aircraft carriers. While we must consider which skill sets will be needed in the future, there is a much greater immediate need to ensure that Fife in particular is skilled up to be able to take advantage of the exciting new developments.

In my area of central Fife, which covers Glenrothes and Levenmouth, many jobs are coming in the renewable energy sector. If we lose the opportunity to ensure that local people—particularly those from Levenmouth and Methil, which is one of the areas of greatest deprivation—have the skill sets to enable them to take advantage of those jobs, we, as a Parliament and a Government, will have failed.

The Scottish funding council and Skills Development Scotland are sometimes behind the curve with regard to the skill sets that are needed. We must ensure that the bureaucracy that surrounds the partnerships does not get in the way of efficient delivery.

That brings me on to the work that is done by Adam Smith College in my constituency. On Monday, I visited the Leven campus and saw the work that Sandra Paterson and others undertake in supporting people who are improving their computer skills or learning them for the first time. I met many of the students, some of whom are now going into employment having learned the skills and confidence that are needed in the employment market.

I had the pleasure last month of visiting the future skills centre on the Adam Smith Glenrothes campus. The new centre brings together the engineering, construction, renewables and science facilities under one roof. David Whitton, Christopher Harvie and I had a very good dinner last Friday night with the senior staff of Adam Smith College to discuss all of these issues.

The new centre is designed to meet the needs of the Fife economy now and in the future. Its close proximity to Methil energy park is a positive plus in attracting companies to the park, and it is essential for the economic development of Glenrothes and Levenmouth. It has added nearly 10,000ft2 to the existing campus and contains 31 specialist workshops with three purpose-built laboratories. There is a renewable energy suite for wind, hydro and solar studies, and the centre has the best non-destructive testing centre in any location from the east coast of Scotland down to Hartlepool in England.

The future skills centre will work across the disciplines to produce multidisciplinary graduates, and I have no doubt that it is one of the best such centres in Scotland, if not the United Kingdom. I extend an invitation to the minister to visit so that he can see for himself just what an exemplar it is and what it can bring to the area, and I look forward to seeing him in Glenrothes in the near future.

Photo of Jim Hume Jim Hume Liberal Democrat 3:58 pm, 7th October 2010

It has taken some time for the Government to publish its skills strategy refresh, especially when one considers that the predecessor 2007 skills strategy was published before the economic downturn, which rendered it unfit for purpose.

Less than two weeks ago, we held a Scottish Government debate in the chamber on Scotland's move towards a low-carbon economy. In my contribution, I argued that Scottish pupils need the skills, training and education to be able to move Scotland towards a decarbonised future. I was interested, therefore, to see that the subsequent Government press release announcing the publication of the strategy mentioned the new wind turbine modern apprenticeship framework at Carnegie College in Dunfermline, to which Keith Brown has also referred today. It is clear that the Government has noticed the continuous pressure from me and my colleagues Jim Tolson, who is the local MSP, and Tavish Scott.

The experience at Carnegie College must serve as a warning of how important it is that companies such as Siemens are not confronted by hurdle after hurdle of red tape. Courses such as those that are offered by Siemens in conjunction with Carnegie College will play an important part in equipping our population with the necessary skills for our future economy.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I reassure Jim Hume that we took up with Siemens the points that Tavish Scott made at First Minister's question time, and I can tell him that Siemens is very happy with the support that it received from the Scottish Government and with the advice that it got.

Photo of Jim Hume Jim Hume Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister for that intervention and am glad that he therefore agrees that never again should we expect companies to trudge between quangos to bring such qualifications to fruition, as it was clearly stated that that was the problem there.

In the summer, the Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning said:

"We need the public, private and voluntary sectors to step forward and help us to help young people become the future workforce and economic success we know they can be."

The voluntary sector has an important part to play in improving the employability of our young people, but I am afraid that the Government has a rather sorry past in that regard. Members will recall that it removed all Government funding from the national volunteering charity ProjectScotland. In 2007, ProjectScotland's funding was £5 million; in 2009, it was zero. ProjectScotland's work existed to provide volunteering opportunities in a range of sectors for young people aged 16 to 25. The volunteers were provided with experience, skills and confidence to help to make them more employable. It is worth reminding ourselves of what the refreshed skills strategy says:

"Collectively, these commitments are aimed at improving the skills and employability of individuals".

ProjectScotland already delivered those aims. When the decision was made to remove the funding from ProjectScotland, I thought that it was foolhardy; it now seems that it was downright reckless. In February this year, there were 42,450 Scots between the age of 18 and 24 claiming jobseekers allowance. Instead of collecting their dole money, many could be doing rewarding volunteering work with the support of an allowance, as young Paul Hamilton from Stranraer did. He volunteered with the Forestry Commission and overcame literacy problems and low confidence to gain employment following his placement. That is only one success story among many.

ProjectScotland recently had to make staff redundant. It is having to turn people away and it is limiting its operations to only 400 volunteers a year. The Scottish Government's school leavers task force initiative provides volunteer placements to those who have recently left school. Although that funding represents a fraction of what the charity needs to realise its potential, my colleagues and I welcome that very public admission from the Government that it got its position wrong. I can hear the crunching of the reverse gear resounding across the chamber this afternoon.

Photo of Jim Hume Jim Hume Liberal Democrat

I can.

In the South of Scotland, uncertainty surrounds the provision of skills to the textile industry following the closure of Skillfast. The minister will be only too well aware of the strength and quality of the industry in the Borders following his meeting with me, Michael Moore MP, who is now the Secretary of State for Scotland, several textile companies, and Borders College—we also worked with Jeremy Purvis—at which we impressed on him the need for a focus on skills development for the textile and fashion industry so that it remains competitive globally.

Members may recall the ties and scarves that they were given last month to commemorate the papal visit, all of which were woven in Selkirk, which is in Jeremy Purvis's constituency and, of course, my region.

The industry needs direct support from the Scottish Government to ensure that there is an easily accessible pool of skilled workers from which the industry can draw. I urge the minister to look again at the issue and explore what support it can offer the industry. Moving forward, I would like the minister to liaise with his United Kingdom counterparts to achieve a consensus on action to assist a very valuable industry.

It is vital that we take action now to avoid another lost generation of young people who lack the necessary skills and experience to get ahead in a competitive job market. Only by providing appropriate and flexible access to opportunities for skills development will that be avoided.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 4:04 pm, 7th October 2010

The skills strategy refresh is welcome and necessary in the current economic climate. On my initial reading of the document, the part that I found most welcome was the intended further simplification of the skills system, to which other members have referred. As with so much within our society's constructs, I hear time and again about duplication of function and regulation and about the bureaucratic brick wall that well-intentioned employers and potential employees often slam into. I take on board the minister's point that one reason for that is the difficulty of working across agencies and indeed across borders. The strategy mentions promoting leadership development in Scottish businesses. Of course, we should all be doing whatever we can to help and promote Scottish businesses, thus allowing further training and employment and a contribution to Scotland's economic future.

Again, however, there are issues. The public sector procurement portal was a welcome development. It was planned that the portal would lead to simplification of systems and ease of use and access. I understand that it is being monitored, as any new system should be, but I ask the Government to do all that it can within the constraints of Scots law and European procurement legislation to ensure that opportunities for employment in Scotland are maximised and that recognition is given to the value of local procurement and its ability to help to regenerate communities. That is surely a sensible way in which to support efforts to retain and grow the skills base.

Some sectors also face the burden of professional indemnity fees in relation to public sector contracting. I am told that that is a growing problem throughout the country. Again, in such times, I stress the necessity for all who are involved in public procurement to make sure that no disadvantage is inadvertently created for small and medium-sized enterprises.

As well as supporting our businesses to allow them to support potential employees, the Government has given much to support Scotland's colleges, and they, in turn, pass on that support. For example, South Lanarkshire College in East Kilbride hosted skillbuild last year and its students won medals in that competition. This year, again, students at the college won construction medals when the competition was held in Wales. Students in our colleges are trained to a high standard and both South Lanarkshire College and the students should be applauded for their efforts and congratulated.

South Lanarkshire College recently retrained 400 former Freescale Semiconductor employees in East Kilbride through the partnership action for continuing employment programme, renewing a current workforce with new skills to take advantage of new opportunities. When we talk about skills and training, we sometimes focus on young people and fall into the trap of forgetting about retraining. Lifelong learning is important. It is only a few months ago, too, that I held a members' business debate about the Aurora house, which has been developed by Dawn Homes and South Lanarkshire College. The need for homes and skills for the future is recognised by the Government's refreshed skills strategy.

The briefing paper from Scotland's Colleges states that colleges are at the heart of their local communities and play a major role in social inclusion. That is true. Folks from all walks of life attend our colleges, which have an innate understanding of the needs and requirements of their local areas. The building of community builds towards economic and social success, and the colleges in Lanarkshire collectively work towards that. We should encourage our colleges, but we should never be complacent when it comes to good practice. We should always look at what others do, contrasting and comparing, and we should never be shy of investigating what works elsewhere.

I have a particular interest in our built heritage and therefore design and construction skills. One element of that is our traditional building trades.

There has been a fairly recent resurgence of interest in such trades because of the recognition, for example, that sensitive rehabilitation of older housing stock is both cost effective and sustainable. Research demonstrates that older buildings can perform well in energy terms—for example, because they have natural insulation—and rehabilitation can be a natural way of recycling building materials. Whether it is our castles, our tenement housing or our dry-stane dykes, specialised traditional skills are required to preserve our heritage, so we must preserve those skills.

Some other European nations hold their traditional skills, and therefore their traditional skills practitioners, in great esteem. That does not apply only to construction trades, of course. I am grateful to Mr James Simpson, heritage architect, for pointing out to me the compagnons du devoir system in France, under which young apprentices and journeyfolk train in French traditional skills. It is a rigorous system that takes a minimum of seven years. It involves a lot of off-the-job training, mentoring, the systematic use of older and retired workers, and the management of movement and change through a network of colleges. Perhaps we can learn something from that. Scotland still has lots of active trades guilds, for example, with a massive reservoir of skills and experience in those workers who are slightly more developed in years. Those skills and that experience are ready to be tapped for the benefit of young apprentices and trainees and the on-going benefit of Scotland. Can we look towards making that link and using that talent and experience?

We have opportunities in the short, medium and long term to tool up our country for the coming years. We should take full advantage of those opportunities and, as so many others have said today, ensure that Scotland is indeed ready to face the future.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 4:10 pm, 7th October 2010

The debate started badly with the prospect that Linda Fabiani might not have an opportunity to speak. [ Laughter .] I meant that, actually. Although it is a minor failing of Linda Fabiani that she does not always agree with me, this afternoon I agreed with every second of her speech, much of which we could all agree on. Of course, there are some areas where we divide, but that is largely a matter of the Opposition parties doing their job in holding the Scottish Government to account. It is the Scottish Government's strategy that is being refreshed and it is right for us to consider whether it is the most robust policy to see us through this extremely difficult situation and to address a second decade of devolution in Scotland that will be very different from the first.

In its skills strategy that was published three years ago, the Government stated in its call to action that it would simplify

"structures to make it easier for people to access the learning, training and development they need, including formal and informal learning by merging a number of bodies into one, focussed on skills."

That was the policy that the Government implemented and, £16 million later, we have what it described. Therefore, it is concerning to read on page 48 of the refreshed document that

"Too many employers, particularly SMEs, are frustrated by the complexity they encounter in accessing the right information about skills at the right time in the right format. It can be difficult for employers to know where to start looking for information without a prior detailed knowledge of the institutional landscape."

Those are the Scottish Government's words, not mine or those of the Conservatives or the Labour Party. After £16 million and nearly three years of work, it is fair to ask what Skills Development Scotland and the Government are doing.

We heard in the minister's speech today that SDS will become more localised. That was one of the action points in the appendix to the refreshed document, which goes some way to addressing some of the initial concerns about the original skills strategy. However, one of the actions is

"Renewed focus from SDS on improving local service provision".

I remind the minister that, three years ago, before the Government's took its new approach, Scottish Enterprise Borders was a one-stop shop for business support, advice, skills and training. Now, schools in my Borders constituency have their careers guidance co-ordinated from an agency in Paisley and skills are set on the basis of a Lothian and Borders area that is not coterminous with the Scottish Borders Council area or the operating area of Scottish Enterprise. I simply ask the minister to think hard about whether the changes that were made in 2007 have been successful when, in the refreshed document, there is the clear language of frustration with complexity and lack of information for those without prior detailed knowledge.

The need to have local skills delivery has been mentioned. I have recently observed in my area the progress to work initiative. Some 300 of the hardest-to-reach young people have been helped into jobs. Many of them have been in prison and most have had a drug habit. When we are looking at financial reductions, the concern is that the hardest-to-reach category might be the easiest one from which to drop services. I do not think that any party in the chamber would want that to happen. It is important to highlight that concern for the hardest-to-reach young people who will be the first to be deposited on the scrapheap.

Another aspect on which we are failing collectively and on which I would love to have seen much more robust work in the Government's strategy relates to children and young people who leave our education system without the skills and attainment that they require and, in particular, those from looked-after backgrounds or the most deprived backgrounds.

The figures are stark. The most recent Government figures show that 47.3 per cent of all school leavers have a higher or an advanced higher. In the least deprived 10 per cent of families, that figure is 77 per cent but, in the most deprived families, it is 22 per cent. Attainment on leaving school differs by more than 50 percentage points according to family background. However, the figure for children from a looked-after background is not 77 per cent or 47 per cent but 2.1 per cent. That is a national scandal that all of us in the Parliament should feel collective shame about and should address, because looked-after young people have the richest parent of all—the state. We must address that situation.

Scotland has 600,000 children who are under 10. After they complete their formal education in the state system, they will enter the labour market. We are in a difficult time for the budget and the economy, but this is the time to make the choices to equip our economy and our young people in the next decade with the benefits that they need to accrue. If we make mistakes in the coming year, we will pay for them in the coming decade.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 4:16 pm, 7th October 2010

My difficulty with the Scottish Government's skills strategy is the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. When the refreshed document was published on 5 October, the Scottish Government issued it with the headline "Scotland gets skilled" and with a press release that set out the strategy's aims. The first aim was

"to simplify the skills system".

As the minister suggested, I read and digested the strategy, but I am not 100 per cent sure whether I understood many of its aims and objectives. I challenge anybody to argue that the document genuinely simplifies the skills system.

I challenge anybody to say that the document empowers individuals

"to access help and support more effectively", which was aim number 2, and to prove that it empowers

"employers to access help and support more effectively", which was aim number 3. I also challenge anybody to say that it better meets

"the needs of the key economic sectors and industries of the future."

There are many positives in what the Scottish Government has done with skills and I have no doubt that the document contains positives, but I feel that we are not quite getting it right. As my colleague Elizabeth Smith said, there is a big prize for getting it right. A 1 per cent increase in productivity across the country would add £1 billion to the economy's value. Achieving a 1 per cent improvement should not be a difficult job with a spend of between £2 billion and £3 billion. There are big prizes for getting it right, but big dangers in getting it wrong.

We all know that the outcome of the comprehensive spending review will be announced on 20 October. We do not know the results, but we know the direction of travel—not as much money will be available to spend on skills next year and for the spending review period. If the independent budget review is correct, we will not have the same amount of money in real terms for about 15 years.

We must consider the skills strategy critically, to ensure that we extract every possible value from the public pound that is spent on skills. My biggest concern and gripe, which our amendment reflects, is that the skills system is not demand led. That was a complaint 20 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago and it has been a complaint every time we have discussed skills in the chamber. It remains a complaint today.

During the minister's opening speech, I asked him to give us examples of where the Government had genuinely engaged with employers. He gave one or two. However, although having a summer leavers package and a telephone line as a one-stop shop for employers in relation to that is a positive step, the examples that the minister gave come nowhere near the type of engagement that we need to have with employers.

Jeremy Purvis referred to page 48 of the document, which admits that the information and guidance that is available is not understood and is too complex and that people are frustrated. Page 21 of the document states:

"It is evident that individuals and businesses ... still perceive the skills system in Scotland to be complex and difficult to access."

The Government knows and accepts that, as its document makes clear.

On page 48, the document offers a solution to the difficulty. It states:

"The SDS Corporate Plan for the three-year period to 2012 contains the goal to 'make skills work for employers' ... SDS will identify industry needs for skills and use this to improve the skills and learning system".

That is not good enough or strong enough. There is a complete lack of engagement with employers, whether they be from the private sector, the public sector or the third sector.

When we last debated skills in the chamber, I gave the specific example of tourism. The Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, of which I am a member, had examined tourism and spent some time looking at skills in the industry. All members of the committee concluded that there was a complete disconnect between those who were providing the services and those who wanted to employ people in tourism businesses when they came out at the other end. The then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning set up a group to review the issue, which concluded that there was no problem and that things ought to carry on as normal. However, only two of the group's 16 members were involved in the industry. An article published in a national newspaper just this week reports:

"College training young people for Scotland's multi-billion-pound tourism ... trade have been criticised as ineffective and presiding over declining standards."

That was a criticism not by Opposition politicians but by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education.

It is not good enough to say that we want the system to be demand led and that we will take action. The system must become demand led if we are to have any chance of improving the outcomes for our learners and, ultimately, our economy.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 4:22 pm, 7th October 2010

I draw the chamber's attention to my entry in the register of members' interests. I am a member of the board of the Wise Group, an organisation that specialises in getting people who face serious barriers to obtaining and holding down employment ready for work and helping them to find jobs.

Until Jeremiah Brown made his speech, I though that we were having a positive debate. There have been many good contributions. There was no disagreement with the principles of flexibility, responsiveness and partnership working that are set out in the document. Members highlighted evidence of good practice and work about which they feel positive; I note the contributions of Trish Marwick and Karen Whitefield, in relation to Lanarkshire. However, there was an undercurrent that suggested that we are not quite getting it right and that there are serious issues that we need to address to improve Scotland's skills profile. Although I do not necessarily agree with Gavin Brown's tone, we need to pause for thought and to question what the document is doing.

It is a principle that there is an inverse relationship between the length of a document and its incisiveness. Although this document is not hugely longer than the previous version, it has fewer pictures and is a compendious analysis of sectors, activities and processes that are taking place. I would have found a skills audit more convincing—something that was informed by numbers and that described how we are getting on with developing skills in different areas. That is not necessarily an easy thing to do, however.

David Whitton pointed out that one of the skills issues that we really need to get a fix on is soft skills—getting people to get to work in the morning, to look others in the eye and to achieve the basic competences that are required to hold down a job. There are people in situations where they require that sort of support.

There are people who have those skills but who might need support with the navigation—David Whitton also mentioned help for jobseekers and school students in ascertaining where future job opportunities might lie and the kinds of skills that it might be appropriate for them to develop to improve their chances of getting jobs in new areas. Mention has been made of renewables and the decommissioning of oil platforms, and there are other potential growth sectors in the economy. We need to point people in the right direction so that they can acquire the skills to get those jobs.

We need to recognise that single sets of skills, which might have been adequate in the past, are increasingly being replaced by multiskilled apprenticeships, and that point has been well made in the debate. That is certainly true in the construction sector. People will need to be able to do more than one trade in order to operate successfully.

We should not just focus on initiatives and processes; we should focus much more on what is being delivered, how it is being delivered and whether it is actually getting to the people we seek to target.

Elizabeth Smith made some interesting points about how the education system needs to move forward in providing different kinds of opportunities. I absolutely agree with her about the need for more diversity in secondary education. I am not sure that that is incompatible with the comprehensive system. One of the issues that we need to deal with in the curriculum for excellence, which I support, is the idea that it allows for different approaches from teachers in relation to different groups of students. We can have diversity within the comprehensive system, not just within schools but through partnerships between schools and colleges, and between schools and colleges on the one hand and workplace learning providers on the other. We need to be much more innovative in providing people with opportunities before the age of 16. It should be a matter of starting at 14 or 15 and seeing what we can do to help people.

Much was made in the debate—Claire Baker made this point—about the need for simplification—"Simplifying the skills system" is one of the headings in the document. Simplification is indeed important, and we must ensure that what is being done is understood by everybody—the skillseeker, the skill provider, the employer and others. I am not sure that we have actually delivered on that. It is one thing to state that simplification is a priority, but it is a different matter actually to deliver that.

Christina McKelvie spoke about gender divisions and gender segregation in skills acquisition, and that is certainly something on which we need to focus attention.

International comparisons are a bit lacking in the document. I am constantly reminded by colleagues about the success of the German economy being founded on the generation of very high levels of skills. The success and competitiveness of the electronic and engineering industries in Germany, which have driven that country's recovery from the economic dislocation of the banking crisis, are founded on flexibility and very high levels of skills in those sectors, and that has allowed the Germans to adapt and compete at high levels in the market, where they are clear of low-wage competition from east Asia and elsewhere. Scotland has to move in that direction. We have to generate not just basic skills—the soft skills to which I referred earlier—but the high-level, applied skills, and we need to protect those skills appropriately.

I highlight the word "Accelerating" in the title of the document. "Accelerating the Recovery" is the sub-heading that the Government has chosen. It is not entirely clear to me, however, how the strategy actually accelerates the recovery. Again, that requires changes right through the late stages of schooling, in colleges and in universities to try to effect change. I recognise that we have more to do—I think that Linda Fabiani also made that point—but huge progress has been made, and I think that the trade unions and others recognise that.

What is it in the document that delivers the acceleration that is referred to in the title? I think that the refreshed strategy provides a highly compendious view of what is going on in the world of skills, but it does not provide enough incisiveness or direction to allow us to work out where that acceleration is coming from or how it will be delivered.

In conclusion, it is one thing to have a strategy, but it is a different thing to have effective delivery. I think that we need a proper audit and a focus on the extent to which what is being delivered is working and how it is being effective. There is nothing wrong with accelerating the recovery—that is what we should be doing—but we need to ensure that in taking forward the skills strategy, that is, in fact, how public money is being deployed.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 4:30 pm, 7th October 2010

I will take up the bulk of my time by responding to some of the points that have been made. That in itself should underline the fact that, on the strategy, we have tried extremely hard to engage with others, including members of the other parties in the Parliament.

Liz Smith's points about careers advice are worthy of a response. We are committed to redesigning the delivery of the careers services to help people, particularly young people, to make better informed career choices. Very shortly, we will publish a new careers information and advice strategy, which will include a commitment to more intensive careers support for those who need it most.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I am pleased to hear that. I refer the minister to a remark made by Nora Senior, the vice-chairman of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, a couple of weeks ago. She said that Skills Development Scotland and Careers Scotland were

"virtually anonymous to the business world."

She hopes that the Government can involve those two organisations in that process.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I do not think that I agree with that statement, but the point that I was making was that we recognise that there is a need for change, partly because of what we expect to come from Westminster and partly because of what we require from the careers service. That issue has been taken on board and announcements on it will be made shortly.

I want to respond to Margaret Smith's point about the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. In its report, as others have mentioned, UKCES recommended the better integration of employment and skills services. In August, we completed a national roll-out of integrated employment and skills services, which has made it easier for people to access training, careers and employment services, thereby helping them to get back into work more quickly.

David Whitton made a point about volunteering, which was mentioned as part of the summer leavers skills strategy that was launched recently—yesterday, I think—with ProjectScotland, which was discussed by Jim Hume. It is too early to give figures on that, but we will produce such figures.

More generally, Margaret Smith asked about the outcomes from the summer leavers package. It is a bit too early to provide meaningful figures on that. We are getting some information through, mainly from schools and colleges, but we are in a position to make progress in collecting those data, and we will provide that information as soon as we have it. It is fair to say from what we have seen already that work in some areas has been more effective than work in others, as is to be expected. We must look extremely hard at how we can make progress with looked-after children—to which I will return shortly, when I respond to Jeremy Purvis's point—which is an extremely difficult area. I point out that the figures that he mentioned have been bad for a very long time. That is not because Governments have not tried to do something about the issue; it is something to do with the nature of the problem, which we are trying hard to address.

Christina McKelvie raised gender issues. I accept that we still seem to have a cultural apartheid, with girls doing hairdressing and boys doing motor vehicle training. Although that still seems to exist, huge progress has been made in the last year or so as regards the number of women who are taking up apprenticeships. There has been a huge shift. Unfortunately, the process still seems to run along particular tramlines, as Christina McKelvie mentioned. We have impressed on our partners the need to address the issue and have had discussions with the trade unions, which are also extremely concerned about it.

We can use marketing initiatives and any other tools that we have to get across the idea that in some industries into which we cannot get women to go, particularly the industries involving construction skills, we must try to effect a culture change. That will not happen quickly. In addition, I was told last week by a representative of JP Morgan that in Glasgow, for example, it is extremely difficult to get women coming through as computer engineers from university IT courses and that the industry is crying out for people.

On trade union learning, Karen Whitefield made a point about European social fund funding. I responded by saying that the Government has contributed substantially more to trade union learning than previous Governments. She asked whether that is sustainable. I mention the European funding because the extra money that we have given to trade unions to encourage more trade union-based learning has allowed them to access additional moneys from the ESF. Even if all the ESF moneys were taken away, there would still be more money going towards that. We must look at the budgets that are coming up soon before we can make further commitments, but we are engaged in discussions with the trade unions on the matter.

Tricia Marwick and other members spoke about trying to anticipate the skills that we need for the future and recognising the immediate need for skills. I would not want to underplay the difficulty of anticipating the skills that will be required. I discussed that matter earlier with David Whitton. The renewables industry, for example, will need many traditional skills and it takes a fair bit of thought to anticipate what skillset we will need and to develop courses that will provide the proper mix of skills. I agree with Tricia Marwick. People who have trained in traditional industries such as plumbing and electrical engineering or have trained to become electricians may not have a job at the moment, but they may be retrained more easily than others in multiskilled positions. That would help us with the expected high demand for their skills in the renewables boom that is coming our way.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I whole-heartedly agree with the minister, but will he consider that the same may apply to manufacturing? Many modern manufacturing businesses require labour to move within the business, from dispatch to the shop floor. Flexibility is a key factor in meeting manufacturing needs.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I agree. I was lucky to be at Owens-Illinois in my constituency yesterday—it used to be United Glass or Pilkington. It has a huge manufacturing operation. The company made the point that, while employees need flexible skills, management must take a more enlightened approach to empowering employees and giving them more say in how they go through their career, with learning opportunities that are relevant to their jobs.

I was disappointed by Gavin Brown's speech. He asked for a couple of examples of Government engagement with employers, which I gave him. I was unable to give him an exhaustive list of how we engage with employers, because we do that in many ways and it would take me a long time to go through the whole list.

One example that I gave was of the summer leavers package. To make sure that that hotline was established by employers we engaged all the employers organisations, including the small business organisations. In relation to tourism, the 800 targeted pathways opportunities that were identified were developed with the British Hospitality Association, which is an umbrella body for many tourism organisations in Scotland.

We regularly have skills summits at which we engage with employers, so I do not accept that we do not engage with employers, and it was wrong of Gavin Brown to suggest that. Perhaps he is unaware of some of the things that are happening. I am more than happy to come back to the issue.

I have no problem with the Labour amendment. The amendment, and the way in which David Whitton in particular has engaged on the matter, show an understanding of the gravity of the situation that we face. When there is such engagement, there is influence. I readily recognise that the skills strategy has been influenced by some of David Whitton's thinking and previous budget discussions that we have had.

I can accept the Conservative amendment. I accept that Liz Smith has differences with some of our suggestions, but she proposed positive measures to try to improve things, although I do not necessarily agree with them.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the Liberal Democrat amendment, which is carping, pointless and negative. The Liberal Democrats' approach is consistent with the approach that they took the last time we had a skills strategy debate. Margaret Smith's amendment should be contrasted with the comments of, for example, Alison Hay, who is a Convention of Scottish Local Authorities Liberal Democrat. She fully supports the skills strategy and thinks that it will be an important addition to how we deal with skills in Scotland. If the Lib Dems want to be part of the solution instead of just carping from the sidelines, they must rethink how they go about things.

I commend the motion that is before members.