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Skills & Employment Action Plan

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Jane Davidson, Minister for Education & Lifelong Learning
I am delighted to have this opportunity to make a statement on the Assembly Government’s Skills and Employment Action Plan. This was discussed by the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee before being issued for consultation last November at the same time as A Winning Wales. The final version takes into account comments made during the consultation and I will be launching the Plan on 27 February.

The Plan relates closely to the vision set out in The Learning Country and in A Winning Wales of a more prosperous and better-skilled Wales. The key theme which links these strategies is skills. In this era of the knowledge-based economy the skills of the people of Wales are paramount and one of the key driving forces for our economic development as well as being an essential part of the lifelonglearning agenda. We are not alone in emphasising this. The Singapore Economic Development Board goes so far as to say that “people are our only resource”.

The Skills and Employment Action Plan sets out practical steps to raise our skills levels and help more people into employment. It is what it says – an action plan. But it is one based on firm evidence. Research undertaken through Future Skills Wales identified significant skills gaps and skills shortages, and painted a picture of too many employers not investing sufficiently in training their staff, and too many individuals not investing in their skills. Our qualifications levels in Wales are relatively low – for example, amongst the parts of the UK we rank 6th out of 12 in terms of Level 4 qualifications. And we rank 11th out of 12 in terms of economic activity rates. We simply have to take effective action to improve in these areas if we are to transform Wales into the sort of society that we want to see – a creative nation delivering a modern economy which brings prosperity to all in a sustainable future.

The Plan owes a great deal to the recommendations of the Wales Skills Task Force and I would like to pay tribute to Brian Connolly and his team for providing a well-focused report that identified clearly what needs to be done. Above all, we need to increase the demand for skilled employment in Wales. Of course we need also to improve the supply of learning, and the reforms and improvements that I am introducing in schools and in post-16 learning through ELWa are doing just that. But above all else our employers, in both  the public and private sectors, need to lift their sights, invest in training and make better use of skilled staff.

To achieve these objectives the Plan sets out 53 action points in four sections. Some of these actions are already under way while others are new. The first section looks at the mechanisms of workforce development. That is, gathering robust information on what skills are needed, what are currently available, and using this information to help address market failures which have resulted in the past in insufficient learning being undertaken. We will do this by further developing the work of Future Skills Wales, for example by strengthening the employer input, and ensuring that the new Sector Skills Councils work effectively in Wales.

The second section covers a range of actions to help supply entrants to the labour market with the skills that employers need. This draws-in our Basic Skills Strategy, Key Skills and the Welsh Baccalaureate and proposes an overall review of learning options post-14, with a consultation paper to be issued by October.  As young people move into adulthood and develop their careers, we need to be sure that the options available to them best meet their needs and the needs of employers. In particular, we must do more to achieve parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes. Other actions in this section include improvements to work experience and measures to improve standards of numeracy and interest in maths, such an important skill in the knowledge economy.

The third section looks at improving the skills of those already in employment. Given that around 80% of the workforce in ten year’s time is already in employment, this is clearly a very important group. One of the key actions here is to introduce pilot projects to test the value for money of providing free learning up to NVQ level 3.  Future Skills Wales research found that the cost of learning can be a significant barrier, a conclusion supported by the Wales Skills Task Force and emphasised by the recent UK Government report on Adult Skills in the 21st Century. These pilots will be carefully designed to integrate with the new Assembly Learning Grants and the scheme that will be introduced to replace Individual Learning Accounts. I want to move towards a comprehensive system of financial support for learners that is effective in overcoming barriers and results in useful learning being undertaken which would not otherwise have taken place.

At the same time, it is important that employers support even more learning than they currently do and I want also to encourage further involvement by the trades unions. Workplace learning through partnership is the way forward here.

The final section of the plan looks at how we can do more to help people into sustained employment. Our levels of economic activity are relatively low and, as A Winning Wales points out, this has a big impact on the levels of GDP in Wales. In this area we need to work closely with the UK Government who, through the Employment Service and Jobcentre Plus from 1st April, have a major role. But in various ways we can add value to the services provided in Wales and the Wales New Deal Task Force will be developing a strategy to do this. This section of the plan also proposes measures to help into employment some of our most excluded groups. These include support for people with drugs problems, those with mental or physical health problems and ethnic minority communities.

This plan will not be allowed to lie on the shelf. It will be monitored closely alongside A Winning Wales. It will be taken forward by the wide-ranging Future Skills Wales Partnership, which includes bodies representing employers, trades unions and the voluntary sector as well as a wide range of public sector bodies. As actions are completed they will be taken out of the Plan and new actions will replace them. I see this as a living document that all the key partners in Wales have signed-up to and which promises to make a real difference to our levels of learning, skills, employment and quality of life.