Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 13 February 2008
Training for Success
13 February 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Jimmy Spratt (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr Robin Newton
Mr Jim Wells
Ms Siobhan Weir ) SkillsActive
Mr Oliver Wilkinson )
Ms Tory Kerley ) Skillsmart Retail
Ms Judith Meyrick )
Ms Lynn Livingstone ) Tesco
Mr Andrew Porter ) Creightons of Finaghy
The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):
I welcome Andrew Porter, Lynn Livingstone, Judith Meyrick and Tory Kerley. It is the first time that any of you have appeared before the Committee. We try to be as informal as possible — we do not like to be stuffy; the room is stuffy enough. I will now hand the meeting over to you for your presentations. I will then open the meeting for questions and comments from Committee members.
Ms Tory Kerley (Skillsmart Retail):
Thank you very much. I am Tory Kerley, the national manager of Skillsmart Retail in Northern Ireland, which is the sector skills council for retail. I am a generalist; therefore I am pleased to be accompanied by an expert in the form of my colleague Judith Meyrick, our programmes manager at Skillsmart Retail, who has an expert overview of apprenticeship schemes throughout the UK. I am delighted to be joined by two employers. Members may be familiar with Lynn Livingstone, who is training manager for Tesco Northern Ireland. Lynn is a loyal member of our Northern Ireland Retail Human Resource Managers Forum, which is an employer forum that meets quarterly.
Andrew Porter is here to represent small and medium-sized retail employers. His business is Creighton’s of Finaghy, which, as members may be aware, is a garage with a petrol station, forecourt and Spar convenience store. I hope that I have described it accurately. It is important that the employers among the group represent the entire sector — that they do not just represent large or small employers but demonstrate that there is broad consensus between large and small employers about what is required from Training for Success.
We have provided background notes, which we hope members have had a chance to read. The notes underline the importance of the retail sector to the Northern Ireland economy. It is often viewed as a “Cinderella sector”, which does not necessarily have high gross value added (GVA) jobs and should not, therefore, be terribly encouraged. The attitude is that retail can look after itself: it has always been there and will always be there. However, for the reasons that I have explained in the document, retail is extremely important for the economy, not least because of the sector’s massive expansion during the past 15 years and the huge increase in its employment, which has led to its becoming the largest private-sector employer in Northern Ireland. There are many other important benefits, such as its links with tourism, agriculture and so on.
We have been invited to the Committee to discuss Training for Success and to talk about the skills issues that face the retail sector. It is a good time to discuss those matters because we, like the other sector skills councils, have just completed a large body of research that is known as a sector skills agreement. Having consulted widely with employers, we are extremely aware of what skills issues there are.
There are many issues, although Skillsmart’s four most important concerns are: management skills in multiple retailers — companies such as Tesco, and many others; the skills of owner/proprietor managers in independent retailers; the skills of customer-service and sales operatives, who account for the bulk of the sector’s employment — of its 90,000 posts, close to 50,000 people are employed in that role, and upskilling them is of prime importance; and skills supply — attracting people into the sector at every level is a major concern, especially when economic predictions are that the sector will employ well over 100,000 people by 2014. It is anticipated that there will be around 13,000 newly created jobs and that almost 40,000 replacement jobs will be required in the same period. People must therefore be attracted into the sector in order to fill those jobs.
The main reason that I want to discuss skills supply and Training for Success is that there is a synergy with the role of apprenticeships in tackling issues such as upskilling people towards management and attracting people into careers in retail because they can see career progression. Sales and service operatives’ skills will be tackled through national vocational qualifications (NVQs) and the professional competency route.
That summarises Skillsmart’s document and also explains its primary initiative to tackle skills supply, on which members may wish to ask questions. Skillsmart considers the skill shop initiative — if it can get off the ground — to be a primary initiative in promoting apprenticeships. As a sector skills council, we are committed to promoting apprenticeships; however, for the reasons that are highlighted in the document, the retail sector has problems engaging with apprenticeships. The employers that we have brought along today are perhaps better placed to voice those concerns. Although there are several concerns, four are primary and it is essential that three of them, in particular, are tackled. Any technical questions should be directed to Ms Judith Meyrick. I am also happy to take questions and to expand on the issues.
Thank you for your paper. It is useful that Committee members can analyse papers before the meeting. We have been examining Training for Success — I do not want to say “critically”, because no one wants to see any programme fail.
Several issues arose from the Committee’s examination of the Training for Success programme. In your paper you welcome improved communication with the Department for Employment and Learning in obtaining comprehensive, reliable and up-to-date statistics. You state that apprentices should be employed because if they are not they are on a pre-employment programme and cannot be realistically or fairly assessed. What do you mean by that?
Jobskills trainees were at level 2 but did not have employment status. In exceptional circumstances, apprentices who are not employed can be at level-2 standard. However, the job-ready strand must be clearly separated from apprenticeships, because one is a work-based learning and upskilling intervention and the other gets people ready to go into work. The two initiatives are very different; one is more generic and considers employability skills. We have a sector-specific employment programme that we are keen to roll out here, but we want apprenticeships to be given a different status to pre-employment programmes.
Before Judith speaks, I will be blunt about why I asked about that. I know many employers who take on apprentices, treat them well, pay them good wages and do not treat them as general dogsbodies. However, there are other employers who treat apprentices very differently —I am concerned that some young people are being abused through training schemes such as Jobskills. I want to ensure that that does not happen. On one hand, we are told that apprentices cannot go into the field, for want of a better term, and must be in college or receive training three or four days a week; on the other hand, some people say that apprentices must be in the field to learn the on-site skills and training. I trained as a chef and much preferred being in the kitchen to learning, but I knew that I had much to learn in the classroom before I could succeed in the kitchen. We must get the balance right so that no one is abused or does not receive the correct training.
Ms Judith Meyrick (Skillsmart Retail):
You have highlighted the difference between the sectors. I met someone at the weekend who was surprised that there were apprentices and said that they used to be found only in engineering. That sums up a problem that we face — Training for Success tries to address all sectors when, as you highlighted in the hospitality sector, they are completely different. In retail, a great deal of training is done on-the-job and is hands-on; for example, one cannot learn how to deal with customers by role-playing because however well it is managed, dealing with an extremely irate customer is a completely different ball game. In the retail sector there is a strong emphasis on learning on the job. There is also a need to take people away from their day-to-day job to learn some necessary underpinning knowledge on, for example, consumer legislation.
Our research shows that apprentices who have employment status from day one are more likely to progress in the business where they work and are more motivated. Moreover, as they are employed in the business, their employer will have a stronger vested interest in them. However, we do not want to discriminate because although there are young people who are ready to do a level-2 programme, vacancies cannot be instantly generated. For example, Tesco is a large employer, but the number of people that it can employ is finite. Smaller independent businesses are often in a similar difficult situation.
Employed status is our preference, but we recognise that if you have a non-employed status programme that should be non-managed, which would lead to an employed place as soon as possible. We feel that that is the strongest way to manage that element.
How long would the apprenticeships last?
It would depend on the individual because apprenticeships are not time-based. On average, a level-2 apprenticeship will take approximately 12 to 15 months; a level-3 apprenticeship will take between 18 and 24 months. Much depends on the capability of the individual and the opportunities available to them in the workplace to develop skills and be assessed.
I realise that in retail training must on on-job. Is there a set scale for wages?
I can only quote from research that was carried out in England, because no research has been carried out here. However, wages will vary from one employer to another. Often, apprentices will start on the lowest rate of payment and will progress up the scale as they become more competent. There is no apprenticeship rate in the sector, unless an employer decides to set one independently.
That worries me, because if there is no set scale, an employer might abuse the system. What safeguards should be built in to ensure that young people are not used as cheap labour to hike up retailers’ profits?
We would like to see a minimum rate of £80 a week for a young person coming on to an apprenticeship programme. That must take into consideration the number of hours that an individual works. If apprentices were working as contracted in England, they would only have to work 16 hours on an apprenticeship, and an employer would not have to pay them £80; there would also have to be an hourly basis. However, in England there is a move for employers to offer apprenticeships only if they can pay a minimum of £80 a week.
Is that below the minimum wage?
The rule is that the minimum wage does not apply to someone on an apprenticeship programme. If that were calculated on a 40-hour week, it would be below the minimum wage.
That is why I am worried about it.
Where would the £80 come from?
The wages are paid by the employer.
Correct me if I am wrong, but the construction industry was looking for guidelines from the Department on an average payment —
I do not want to contradict what has been said about the research on wages in Northern Ireland. However, the Northern Ireland Retail Human Resource Managers Forum carried out a sharing exercise on salaries, and found that apprentices should come in with employed status. It is being hammered home that that is the case; therefore of course apprentices are on the minimum wage because they have the same rights as any other employee and they should be treated as such. That is the prevailing view. However, it is all academic because there is no large-scale engagement with apprenticeships. Which big employer would develop a policy on how to pay apprentices when they are not engaged on apprenticeships anyway?
Nevertheless, you can appreciate our concerns.
Absolutely; if the sector can engage on a wide-scale basis, checks and balances will, without doubt, be put in place.
Mr Andrew Porter (Creightons of Finaghy):
The independent and smaller employer sector believes that there is a lack of knowledge about what is available. If an employer is offered an apprenticeship at £40 or £80 a week, they might consider it cheap labour; there would be no respect. It is cheap labour, and that is shown by the paying of a low wage.
Employers need to be educated. I represent the smaller employer, and I had no knowledge of any of those programmes until a few weeks ago, although the course has been running since last year. Why did I not know? Perhaps I am duty-bound to find out what is available.
Creightons is a responsible employer, but there may be smaller employers who do not know what is available, so the programme needs to be sold properly. Providing a programme that produces proper workers who generate respect would solve the problem of low wages. I was surprised to find that there is no knowledge of the programmes in the workplace.
Level-2 and level-3 apprenticeships were talked about, but I did not know about them.
It is useful to know.
Someone needs to be tasked with selling the concept to businesses; if it is sold properly, apprentices can be paid the same rate as everyone else. That would not be a problem.
My worry is what has been happening until now. When someone was being trained to be a till operative in Tesco, how much training would they have got? All of a sudden, we are going down the apprenticeship route, which may take 15 months. There is a danger that once that time is up another apprentice will be started, and so it goes on — the big employer gets bigger and earns more money. There is a danger of apprentices being exploited because, to put it bluntly, they are cheap labour.
Ms Lynn Livingstone (Tesco):
My understanding is that apprentices get paid the same rate as the normal worker, because they are employed by Tesco before they go onto the scheme; although that has not happened in Northern Ireland. Fifty per cent of the apprentices who have been through the programme in England have progressed in their careers with Tesco, and some have moved on to the position of line manager.
For the record, we are not naming any company. We are concerned about what happened with Jobskills, as we do not want that to happen again. Andrew made the relevant point that there is a lack of information. This meeting is being recorded, and I do not want anyone to be named.
I am not implying anything about any of the folks who are here today.
You will lose your coupons for Tesco. [Laughter.]
The historical impression of apprentices was that they were young, low-paid labour brought in by employers to get a job done, whereas now they are employed in a job, and the apprenticeship scheme is helping them to progress in their careers.
Apprenticeships need to be sold on that basis. Most senior managers in McDonald’s started out behind a counter serving burgers.
Many of the retailers that we engage with in this programme look at the skills gaps in their vacancies. One retailer targeted an area where they needed specialists; eventually they will not need to recruit any more because their needs have been met and they will not get rid of the people whom they have recruited. Retailers are using the programme for a particular purpose: to generate people who will progress in their business. They are using career paths as a basis for their business, and that is what Skillsmart Retail is trying to do.
People are attracted to the retail sector for various reasons, although seldom because they perceive that it offers a career path. We want to use the programme to generate interest and to show people that progression from level-2 to level-3 apprenticeships is possible.
Another problem with the programme is the manner in which contracts appear to have been awarded. An apprentice might be engaged in a level-2 apprenticeship with a provider who does not offer a level-3 contract; therefore in order to progress to level 3 they must find another provider. However, young people prefer to remain with a familiar organisation that understands their strengths and weaknesses rather than start afresh somewhere new. That is a difficulty with the programme.
I welcome the Skillsmart delegation. It has been interesting to hear a good mix of evidence from a small and a large employer.
I am on record saying that the retail sector is often regarded as a Cinderella sector. In fact, it is vital to the economy, particularly in light of the service requirements for tourism, and will play an essential part in the roll-out of the tourism strategy.
Some of my concerns have already been mentioned, and I agree with Jimmy Spratt that greater emphasis should be placed on career opportunities in the retail sector and for those opportunities to be considered as professional.
Over the Christmas period, the retail sector faced what might be considered as either a threat or an opportunity from Internet trading.
Perhaps you could elaborate on your relationship with employers’ associations.
The statistics you submitted are interesting. Northern Ireland has half the associate professional and technical and the professional occupations that the UK has. Those figures illustrate the restrictions on those who want to make a career in retail.
Your submission states that the retail sector is largely disengaged from the public sector and in many cases distrusts the ability of further education providers to deliver the high-quality, flexible upskilling interventions that are necessary. You mention the belief that Training for Success is indirectly discriminatory on grounds of gender. However, you also say that the problems of delivering training programmes to part-time workers are not insurmountable. Perhaps you might comment on those assertions.
I will, although you have raised quite a few issues. I will start with you final point and work backwards.
It can be difficult to deliver programmes to part-time workers who might, for example, work only on Saturday. In Great Britain, part-time contracts are for 16 hours, and people who work for 16 hours or more are entitled to an apprenticeship. In Northern Ireland, they must work for 35 hours or more. The nature of the retail sector means that 60% of people work fewer hours than that; most people work between 16 and 35 hours. Greater organisation is required to plan part-time workers’ training, and, as the other witnesses would agree, that is true for any in-house training programme. However, although training is problematic because it must be more carefully planned, those problems are not insurmountable.
The extra hour a week for training is achievable for a part-time member of staff.
It requires an additional commitment from the employer. The employer has to work round those issues.
When I first found out about Training for Success, I looked forward to having a programme for 75 staff. As I went through the prospectus, however, I realised that it was for 16 to 24-year olds full time and that it filtered all the way down. Only three staff members were eligible for the programme. I did not have a problem with those three staff doing any training, but it was such a demotivator for the rest of the staff, particularly if I had one 24-year-old who could take advantage of the training, but three 27-year olds could not. They would ask why they were not eligible. Now that I have found out about the programme, I want it to be made available to the part-time female staff who are the backbone of our business and who did not progress to further education because they have been raising families. I would love to be able to make that training available to them.
Is the Internet a threat or an opportunity? What is your relationship with employers’ associations? Why are the associate professional and technical and the professional occupations in Northern Ireland only half what they are in Great Britain?
Although some multi-nationals have always had a presence in Northern Ireland, most of their head offices are based in Great Britain. Much as we would like to see them transferred here, that is not the case at present. As you can see from the statistics, however, some of the larger retailers are here, and they are increasing their buying activities, with the emphasis on local Northern Ireland produce. There are more opportunities for those kinds of jobs than there ever have been, but it is a fact of life that they do not have as much of a presence here as they do in Great Britain.
Career progression is an absolute must if businesses are to attract people into retail as a career. It is interesting that representatives from a small employer and from one of the largest employers in Northern Ireland are sitting side by side. By and large, the sector is totally in agreement on skills issues. The delivery mechanisms vary for different sizes of retailers, but there is a consensus that we should work together as a sector to promote careers. We are at the beginning of that journey, but we have done some good work. Apprenticeships are a key tool, and we would like to do more work in that regard.
The Internet is both a threat and an opportunity. It is a threat to those who do not have access to it but an opportunity for those who do. There are some fantastic Internet retailers in Northern Ireland: Chain Reaction cycles in Ballyclare is an extremely good example; it is the largest bicycle exporter in Europe. From its beginnings as a bike shop in a small unit in Ballyclare, it now has 130 employees. That is a perfect case study of an SME retailer that has grasped the nettle and created an opportunity. As is always the case in business, one person’s opportunity is another person’s threat.
FE Means Business is the title of the Government’s strategy for further education. In your submission you contend that the retail sector is
“Largely disengaged with the public sector, and in many cases distrustful of the ability of FE to deliver the high quality flexible upskilling interventions necessary”.
Those comments were based on anecdotal reporting and arose out of the supplementary research that we carried out for our sectoral skills agreements. Our human resources forum gathered a consensus of opinion from the largest retailers in the country and some of the medium-sized ones as well. We sent a list of unattributed quotes from that survey to further education colleges to make them aware of those opinions about FE Means Business. One of them asked whether FE Means Business was some kind of joke. That sort of comment may be too extreme, and we do not wish to criticise the excellent work that goes on in the further education sector, but as far as the retail sector is concerned, very little work is going on between the two sectors.
We are working extremely hard to give retail a chance to tap in to public-funded education. We are trying very hard to work with the workforce development forums, for example, to improve synergies. Public-funded education is seen as something that happens somewhere else and is not for retailers.
An opinion that has been expressed widely in the forum — and I think that this may be true of independents, but Andrew can correct me if I am wrong — is that no one in the further education sector knows as much about retail as the people working in retail. The retailers’ logic is: why would I take people out of my business and send them to college to be taught by somebody who knows less about retail than I do? That is a very colloquial way of relaying what has been said. Is that a fair comment, Andrew?
Yes. I do not think that I have ever received an application from an applicant who has a retail qualification at any level — and Creightons receives many applications. Our most successful training has been delivered in-house by people with experience in retail. We have retained those staff and they have worked well for us. I do not know whether any of you guys are familiar with the Wholesale and Retail Training Council (WRTC). It is a training organisation specifically for the retail industry, which was set up a several years ago with Government funding. Our business has used WRTC heavily; we have put several members of staff through the rapid programme, which has now become the modern-day apprenticeship.
It was the modern-day apprenticeship, but they chose to call it the rapid programme.
It was the precursor of all those programmes. Our guys went on those courses, and they have now become junior management staff. WRTC will close this month due to lack of funding, but it is an example of a specific site that focused on retail. We used it heavily over the years, and I attended WRTC supervisory courses. That organisation will disappear because it could not get funding. It was great for spreading the word, which is very important. WRTC constantly sent us literature and emails about the courses that were on offer. I was very disappointed to learn of its demise. I do not know why that has happened.
I am conscious of time, so we must press on. Only one other Member has indicated that they wish to speak.
I have just one brief point to make.
Nelson, you are never brief.
I will be extremely brief.
I will come back to you in a minute.
Andrew, you said that you were not aware of the Training for Success programme. That is shocking. I do not lay all the blame at the feet of the Department —
I feel bad myself; as an employer, I am duty-bound to find out what is available.
That was not what I was going to say, and I could be wrong in my comments. There is no shortage of councils, bodies and groups of every kind for which the Department for Employment and Learning is the sponsor Department. I cannot believe that someone like you, who is clearly keen to be involved, is not aware of what is on offer. Does Skillsmart have a role to play in informing businesses? I am looking at the list of organisations with which it engages.
We have a role —
That is my first point. I asked once for the list of organisations that DEL sponsors, but I never received it. However, I know that it sponsors many organisations.
You mentioned that the inclusion of an essential skills unit in the Training for Success programme acts as a barrier to apprenticeships. That is a flagship programme, to use the language of the Department, but yet you see it as a barrier. Can you elaborate on that, please?
Although the essential skills programme is built on the same standards as the old key skills programme, the delivery, training input and assessment methodology have changed significantly. Furthermore, those who deliver the essential skills training are required to have a much higher level qualification, so the Department has been investing money to upskill tutors and trainers to deliver the training. One of the issues with the essential skills programme is the requirement for learning to be delivered away from the workplace.
Under the essential skills programme, providers have to work with learners from different sectors to deliver essential skills training in a generic fashion. However, the programme was designed to be delivered in a way that was occupationally relevant. For many young people, literacy and numeracy is a barrier and they see such training as going back to school. The issue is to engage them in why they need to learn more numbers and communication skills. They learned those at school, so they question why they have to learn that now.
The essential skills programme is a good idea, but it should be tailored towards a particular sector.
We agree that literacy and numeracy skills are essential skills for participation in the world of work generally and in apprentices’ own occupations. The delivery and training input and the assessment methodology of the qualification creates barriers. Many of the learners do not acquire the learning in a contextualised manner, so they do not see its relevance. In retail, for example, a huge piece of relevant work could be done around wastage —
That is not what your paper says; it says that the time required for a person to be out of the workplace to gain the essential skills element is off-putting and unworkable, particularly now that apprentices are of full-employed status. It is not about the assessment; it is about the timing.
My comments on the assessment are in addition to what is in the paper.
That is part of the same issue. Learners have to go to a classroom to learn essential skills because they are not doing something that is contextualised in their workplace.
Of course we have a responsibility to promote apprenticeships, and we are trying hard to do that. In the absence of WRTC or any other focal point, Skillsmart, as a sector skills council, is a strategic organisation. It is not my role to go round every one of our 9,000 retailers and talk about programmes. We work through other bodies and associations, but it is essential that we have a focal point for retail upskilling, and that is seen through the second initiative, the retail skills shops. We agree with you; we would like to do more, but we cannot do it now.
Where does that sit with Andrew’s comment that he was not aware of many of the programmes?
To be fair, Andrew did have people engaged in the modern apprenticeship; it was just called something else. Much depends on how a programme is marketed and who is marketing it. If the provider is marketing it individually, there are confusing messages. One clear sectoral identity is needed.
Tory proposed a skills shop that an office or an organisation could phone for information. That is a good idea.
An apprentice could run the skills shop.
That would be perfect.
I had never heard of the WRTC until it was mentioned today. Was it widely used?
It was widely used and widely respected in our sector. The WRTC was good at marketing itself; it started with Government backing, and funded itself through funding for courses. The WRTC’s services were not free for the employer; we had to pay, but it was a reasonable amount. We used it a lot over the years.
Did large and small retailers use the WRTC?
I am not sure about large retailers, but independent retailers would send two or three people to the WRTC’s premises in Mallusk.
I will ask the Committee Clerk to find out more details about that.
Ms Meyrick, given that you have a broad experience of Government training, do any other aspects of Training for Success jump out at you as being something that we should consider — for example, the fact that the programme does not deal with part-time workers?
Should we address other issues, such as the fact that the Training for Success programme does not deal with part-time workers? It is dramatic to say that the programme simply does not meet the needs of the retail sector, especially given that Tesco is now the largest private-sector employer in the North. Is the situation that severe?
That is a fair comment, because if the Training for Success programme were meeting the needs of the retail sector, large employers would sign up to it as part of their policy. However, individual retailers are brokering arrangements with individual providers.
Has none of the big five in the North signed up to the programme?
Some store managers have brokered a relationship with the local provider and signed up to the programme on an individual store basis. However, none of the big five have written into their policies that they will sign up to the programme in Northern Ireland.
Do you know whether the smaller retailers have signed up to the Training for Success programme?
We are not familiar with how the programme works, but we have participated in successful programmes in the past, and I am keen to get involved in them again.
One of the reasons why the big five have not engaged in the programme is because they would prefer to have a contract to deliver a programme themselves — in other words, they would prefer to be their own training provider. However, in our dealings with the Department, we have been led to believe that that is not possible. It is difficult for Tesco to engage with half a dozen providers.
Does that happen in England?
Yes. In England, dedicated training is done through the National Employer Service. It is separate funding, but the contract is managed by the employer. It comes with all the contractual requirements that the provider must go through.
That provider was not chosen by a tender process. It was simply identified that there was a need for that type of training.
There was a need for that type of dedicated training, especially if large retailers such as Tesco always had to contract or sub-contract to different providers in various locations.
We are told that we cannot do that.
That would be one way of getting the large retailers to engage with the programme.
That was a useful presentation. We have teased out some information that will go towards the Committee’s report on the Training for Success programme. Thank you for your attendance today.
I now welcome Siobhan Weir and Oliver Wilkinson from SkillsActive. You have an idea of some of the Committee’s concerns about the Training for Success programme. We will listen to your presentation and then members will ask questions.
Ms Siobhan Weir (SkillsActive):
Thank you for inviting us today. I have so much to say that I was not sure where to begin, but I hope that this will be the first of many discussions with the Committee. With that in mind, we decided to focus today on apprenticeships. Perhaps we can broaden the picture and feed into the important work that you are doing around the success through skills strategy.
With that in mind, we thought that we would give the Committee some background about our sector so that members will get a sense of where we are coming from. Our sector is not like the traditional construction and engineering sectors; it is complex and interesting, and I would like the Committee to have that sense of who we are and what we are all about.
Then, perhaps, we can present some of our findings on employers’ experiences of the skills strategy. What better way to do that than to hear from an employer who can bring to life some of the issues? Oliver Wilkinson has been involved with us since the Sector Skills Council — SkillsActive — came into being. People like Oliver Wilkinson took a real leap of faith when they heard about the Sector Skills Council, because they wondered whether it would be yet another organisation that would be here today and gone tomorrow. They gradually realised that we were here to help to bring the voice of the employer to people, such as members of this Committee. That has been a challenge for us, but the more Olivers that we have in this world, and the more they develop, the better. Oliver will talk about how he has tried and failed to access apprenticeships. All is not lost. We have come up with ways in which it might be possible for Oliver and other employers in our sector to access apprenticeships, which the Committee might be interested in hearing about.
I apologise that our information packs did not reach the Committee before this meeting. I will highlight one or two items in the packs that might be of particular interest. Perhaps we can look at some of the information in more detail on another occasion. The first information leaflet — the one with the photographs — helps to convey what SkillsActive is. Active leisure can include any business with “active” and “leisure” in its title, as well as the sports sector. That is one of our biggest sectors, and it includes football clubs, stadiums, community sports projects and sports governing bodies. It also includes the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland, which is busy tutoring athletes who might become Olympic gold medallists one day.
There are industries related to sports, such as sports medicine, ground-keeping, refereeing and event management. Volunteers play a huge role in sport; they are significant contributors to the sector. There is also the health-and-fitness sector, which includes private and public gyms and leisure centres. Perhaps some of you are members of centres, such as Fitness First, and public leisure centres, such as the Valley Leisure Centre and Lagan Valley Leisureplex or the Brandywell Sports Centre. They are all over the place. Everywhere you go, you will see our sector in one shape or another.
In addition there is the play-work sector. People ask what play workers are and question whether that is a profession in itself. However, it is a profession, because it is a sad fact of life that we need people to preserve play and the child’s right to play. Therefore, there is a professionally qualified workforce to help to develop play. They play an important part in our sector. They tend to be responsible for children aged six and over, which overlaps slightly with the early-years sector. Play workers can be found in, for example, after-school clubs, day nurseries and holiday schemes. Play workers help to reassure parents that, while they are contributing to the economy, their children are in a safe, professional environment. They have a crucial role to play.
There is also the outdoor sector.
It is an interesting fact to record that that sector has increased by 70% over the past four years. The activity-tourism sector is becoming a booming business, and business in the outdoor sector is doing well. The caravan and leisure parks are included in our footprint. People often ask why caravans are part of the leisure sector. Most caravan sites have play centres, or even swimming pools, therefore, they are a significant part of our footprint. That is a brief description of the employers whom we represent.
In our information sheet we have tried to capture some of the ways in which we contribute to the economy. However, we are talking about the broader economy, that of social inclusion, health and education. We have an impact on all parts of the bigger economy. That is an important point to make. Perhaps, we are not seen as a priority skills sector because we cannot often make the financial formula that is required to demonstrate our impact on the economy. However, in saying that, £191 million in output to the Northern Ireland economy, in 2004, is not a bad effort.
We were asked to identify some of the skills challenges. Again, I did not really know where to begin because there are so many. Obviously, because there is such a diverse group of employers, they will all have different skills issues. The employers are beginning to panic a little bit because they have noticed a shrinking labour force out there and a shortage of skills. SkillsActive has identified a few of those, which are listed the first page of our submission. Employers are starting to look at innovative ways of attracting talent. They see the apprenticeship schemes as a way of doing that. At the moment, as Mr Wilkinson will explain in more detail, we are experiencing difficulties in accessing apprenticeships.
Members will notice from our submission that approximately 61% of employers are not currently using any of the success through skills programmes. That is a matter that we would like to address. It highlights the fact that only 39% of employers actually access public funding. That is a bit of an imbalance when compared with some other sectors, such as hospitality. In that sector, the majority of chefs will be funded through colleges. In contrast, our employers have to pay for most of the training. If we do nothing else, as the sectors schools council, we would like to address that imbalance.
We cover approximately 3% to 4% of the Northern Ireland workforce. That is, perhaps, a conservative figure because, as I mentioned, our remit overlaps with a lot of other sectors, of which activity tourism is an example.
With regard to modern apprenticeships, I thought it would be helpful if Oliver Wilkinson explained how we went on a little journey, as part of my initial work to engage with him. We asked him to let us to get the apprenticeship schemes to work for him. Oliver Wilkinson will explain why we thought that that was a good idea and what actually happened. Once we have done that, then we will briefly finish off with what we consider to be three of the four solutions to the problems. There is no point in coming to the meeting with all of the problems and not bringing some of the solutions with us. Mr Wilkinson will outline his experience with apprenticeships.
Mr Oliver Wilkinson (Share Centre, Lisnaskea):
I run an outdoor education and creative arts centre, called the Share centre, in Lisnaskea. Perhaps members know about it; your children may have attended it. We have between 40 to 45 staff, depending on the time of the year. Each year we have to employ eight trainees. The group that I am talking about comprises the people who provide instruction for children. If one wants to go sailing, climbing, canoeing or any activity that has an element of risk, those individuals have to be trained to a competent standard so that they can provide a safe learning experience.
We find that individuals who come straight from further education, or any level of education, cannot provide a service to us: we have to train them.
I was interested in the comments on further education, and I agree with much of what was said. The Share centre takes on and trains individuals. Mr Spratt asked about how much people are paid. For the record, we give our trainees an allowance of approximately £60 a week. Furthermore, our residential centre provides their accommodation, we supply their expensive training equipment, we provide all their meals, and so forth. The combined cost certainly equates to the minimum wage. We provide that money ourselves or through an EU programme from which we can access money for training. However, that is extremely difficult.
We considered the modern apprenticeship; however, most of the people that we take on do not train with us for a long-term career in the outdoors. Many are between the ages of 18 and 25 and do not have strong academic backgrounds but have good vocational skills. Some young people decide that, having taken their A levels, they want to take two or three years out before thinking about their academic careers. Others, who have finished their academic courses, perhaps at university, want to work in the outdoors. They stay with us for two, three or four years before moving on.
As the Committee is probably aware, many young people now develop two or three careers rather than a single career. People move through a portfolio of different working experiences in their lives. In our industry, they often work on a part-time basis for us, perhaps at weekends, and work at something else during the rest of the week. We have to get round such challenges.
If, under a modern apprenticeship programme, I were to take on as employees the eight people that are trained each year, I would have to make several of them redundant at the end of the 12-month period, because I could not employ eight new people in one year. However, there is a genuine shortage of good, competent instructors in outdoor activities. As the peace process develops, more and more people are coming to this country, and they want to experience the North and South of Ireland. They are keen to take part in outdoor activities in areas of Northern Ireland, such as the Fermanagh lakes. Therefore, there is potential for employers such as the Share centre to continue to grow and to make a significant contribution. Nevertheless, I could not employ all eight people.
Therefore, from the eight trainees that we take on, we try to select two or three each year, because members of the workforce are constantly moving on. Those two or three individuals will stay with us for two or three years before moving on, to be replaced by another two or three. However, the others, interestingly, move to other outdoor centres throughout the UK and Ireland, because we have trained them as competent instructors. Therefore, we provide that training for the industry, and, in most cases, we use our own resources. At the moment, I cannot see the modern apprenticeship process being particularly useful to the Share centre, although I would love to think that it is.
Ms S Weir:
Oliver described extremely well how he has tried his best to access the programme. When he told me his story, I thought that the apprenticeship scheme would, fit the bill in many ways, because he trains people who must be highly skilled; able to interact with children; capable of motivating people; aware of health and safety; and so forth.
The one problem that Oliver Wilkinson said that they had was that those skills were not being packaged in a way that gave people a licence to practise. Therefore, we thought that the modern apprenticeships in the outdoor sector — which we have a framework for — would fit the bill. That would mean that the portfolio workers who Oliver talked about, who move in and out of the industry, could go to another employer with their NVQ in outdoor instructing.
However, those people are currently going to employers with bits and pieces of training. That is a shame because they are not getting the acknowledgement, they are not seen as professional and they do not feel that they have got what it takes to compete with other industries.
With Oliver, we did try to work with a further education college. However, we found it difficult because they have traditionally been set up to work in a classroom setting. Simulation simply does not work in our sector; it is about getting out on the lakes or up the mountains, which the average senior lecturer in a further education college is not equipped to do. As Tory Kerley from Skillsmart said, the experts are in the workplace. Unfortunately, apprenticeship schemes do not currently give the kind of balance that is required to meet the relevant needs.
I do have suggestions for solutions to the problems that have been outlined. That way, we can leave the Committee with something to work on, as opposed to simply talking about the issues. Currently, a lot of our people are 25 and over because that is the kind of people required to take a group of children up a mountain or to work with young people. Adding to what the Skillsmart representatives said about the 16-year-olds and over, we are a funny industry in that we are not a homogenous group of nine-to-five workers; we have part-time workers, seasonal workers and so on. We want the apprenticeship scheme to acknowledge that difference. If it cannot be acknowledged, we will have to face the fact that apprenticeships are not for us. However, we need an answer one way or another so that can move on.
If someone achieved an A* in Maths at GCSE level six years ago, and they went tomorrow to enrol in an apprenticeship scheme, they would have to go through the whole Essential Skills programme because their qualification would no longer be recognised. GCSEs are recognised only up to five years after having achieved them. That system is wrong and it creates a barrier for a lot of people. Obviously, skills to be measured in some way, but we want a review of that system.
Finally, sometimes all issues are not simply related to the minimum wage. Young people, and, indeed, in some cases older people, need to be given something more valuable than the minimum wage. I feel sorry for so many graduates coming out of universities. I believe that in many ways they have been abused. They have had three or four wonderful years of higher education, but statistics show that they are not getting the jobs that match their skills. The apprenticeship scheme provides an opportunity so that that will not be the case: people learn the skills, they do what is required to get a job, and, in most cases, they are guaranteed employment at the end the scheme.
I thank Siobhan and Oliver for their presentation. As I said earlier, it was useful getting the two presentations back to back. It was indicated in the previous presentation that there was little or no engagement with the Department on specific issues. What are your views on that?
Ms S Weir:
Do you mean in our role as a sector skills council?
Andrew Porter talked about employers getting very little information.
Ms S Weir:
We have similar experiences. Due to capacity, sometimes it is not possible to get that information.
If we could work in partnership with DEL and further education colleges that information could be obtained. However, that approach must be a joint effort that sends a powerful message at different levels — through a major media-information campaign, and on a one-to-one basis because personalities often sell things and more people on the ground are required.
The success of modern apprenticeships in the outdoor sector would alone be enough to raise awareness because Northern Ireland is a small place. For example, an employer down the road from Oliver, who does not take on apprentices, would hear about all the success. Word of mouth is also a powerful form of advertising.
It is always a good idea to provide your information packs on the day that you arrive.
Is the Share centre a charitable organisation that is not part of the private sector?
Ms S Weir:
Yes; that is correct.
In your presentation, you concentrated on the outdoors, which is what I regard as the classroom instead of FE colleges. I will ask about other sectors that you touched on in the presentation. Although not the same as apprenticeships, the qualification levels in the outdoor sector are not that bad, which indicates that people are willing to work for qualifications. You said that 53% of part-time employees and 74% of full-time employees have an FE qualification, which demonstrates a willingness to embrace the qualification route in the overall sector, although there are the difficulties with the outdoor sector.
Ms S Weir:
That is a good point Robin. However, although the employees with qualifications tend to be technically qualified — because it is a requirement of our industry for health and safety reasons — they often do not have employability skills. For example, a coach may know how to get people onto a lake for an activity but know nothing about team work, which is the type of skill that an apprenticeship scheme would teach. Therefore, although our sector technically has a high level of employees with qualifications, on closer inspection those qualifications are not the same as the employability skills that the average employer looks for.
As the Chairperson said, the consistency in both presentations on the restrictions placed on age and part-time workers in the Training for Success programme was very useful.
The Programme for Government highlighted the potential for a growth in tourism, which is an industry that has developed over the past number of years. Given the potential increase in adventure tourism, does the Sector Skills Council anticipate a problem in getting a sufficient number of skilled workers in the next three or four years to accommodate?
Approximately 61% of employers are not involved in training programmes, and even those who are think that further education in sport and recreation have not kept up to date. Therefore, 61% are not involved at all and those who are do not think that it is very relevant, which does not present a favourable picture of how the Training for Success programme is positioning itself to service your requirements. Do you have anything to add to that analysis?
Adventure tourism presents us with a challenge and a real opportunity on two levels. The first is that more people are coming here. There is a significant increase in the numbers of French and Italian young people visiting our centre this year. They come to Fermanagh to learn to speak English — and why not? They have an opportunity to see the beauty of the lakeland environment and so on, and we take them to visit Belfast and other places. They are interested in seeing around them.
There is a growing interest in our environment. For us, that means ensuring that what we do has a positive impact on our physical environment, or at least does not damage it. Otherwise, our tourism success will be short-term and that which is special about our developing tourism industry could be destroyed. We must constantly update the training that we provide to our staff and volunteers to make them aware of the sustainable environment and the importance of protecting and enhancing the environment in which we provide our service. That is becoming more and more of an issue.
Two week ago, we hosted Ireland’s Greenbox eco-conference, and those environmental issues are being viewed as a future selling point on this island because, at the moment, it does not have a huge tourism footprint. The question is; are we to develop our industry by building rows of hotels like those on the Spanish coasts, or do we develop an eco-tourism product that could really set us apart? I think that we can achieve the latter. We must train and develop our people in that regard, but, at this stage, we are scarcely able to train the instructors to do what they are currently doing.
Ms S Weir:
Alex, you made some very important points about tourism. In a way, we are victims of our own success. The tourism sector is an attractive sector, and, as Oliver said, it is beginning to develop more, but the problem is that we cannot churn out enough skilled people for the workforce. Again, that is why it is frustrating that we cannot use the apprenticeship scheme, which would allow us to address that problem. In our dialogue with DEL, we are trying to ensure that the issue is addressed in the Programme for Government, and we have recorded it in our sector skills agreements. The question is how far down the line the message will travel; will the people who need to know about the skills shortage that will develop in the future be made aware of it? We have not even begun to consider the impact that the 2012 Olympic Games will have on the industry and the kind of workforce that will be needed for those events.
Alex, your second point was that employers have said that some of the training courses on offer are not relevant, and you mentioned that many of our employers are not engaged with the FE sector. However, that is starting to change. The tourism industry is a fairly new industry, so only now are we getting employers to come on board and to engage in dialogue with us. In order for them to shape and influence qualifications, employers must help to review occupational standards in their industry. That is not the most exciting job because it involves examining very detailed technical competencies and skills, yet it is so vital. By carrying out that exercise, we can ensure that employers ask for the qualifications that will meet their needs. It is an ongoing process, and perhaps in a few years’ time, the picture will be better.
How does the sector profile in Northern Ireland compare with that of the rest of the UK? Is it larger or smaller?
Ms S Weir:
I will deal with the five main tourism areas. In the sports sector, we balance out fairly well. Our health and fitness sector is smaller than the sectors in other regions. I do not have the specific details to hand, but I can certainly get them for you. Even though the outdoor sector is growing, it is still quite small compared to, say, Wales.
In relation to caravan and leisure parks, we do not have Alton Towers, but we have many small owner-manager sites. We do not have the same volume or many of the big names such as Alton Towers, but that is starting to change. More investors are looking at ways to put their footprint here. JJB Fitness is an example of a private concern starting to open up gyms here, so obviously it sees the potential. However, with that comes the workforce, and that may be where they are holding back investments.
Does the sector have a relationship with DCAL?
Ms S Weir:
Yes, on several fronts. We are starting to work with DCAL on the 2012 Olympic Games. It has asked for information on the type of skills we think that the volunteers will need for 2012. We do not have any formal relationships or memorandums — and we would welcome that — but maybe that can be developed. We have a good relationship with Sport NI, who works closely with DCAL. A lot of the solutions can be found across government — not just in DEL.
Thank you, Siobhan and Oliver for your presentations. The information will be useful in the Committee’s scrutiny of Training for Success. When looking at problems, it is useful to have possible solutions, and that is appreciated.