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Working Lunch Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Colleges help fill the gaps
Making sure the UK's workforce has the right skills for the jobs available is proving a big challenge for the government.

Later this month it publishes its skills strategy, a White Paper aimed at encouraging more workers to gain qualifications and also raising levels of adult literacy and numeracy.

There's no shortage of advice being offered to the government, not all of it too friendly.

On Tuesday, the Association of Colleges puts its case in a briefing to MPs and officials at Westminster.

Not listening

The Association, which represents more than 400 further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has already exchanged sharp words with the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke.

He says colleges aren't listening to what students and employers want.

They argue that the government needs a radical new strategy with much less red tape.

Certainly, the decline in manufacturing means many low skill jobs are disappearing and the demand for skills is rising.

The need for skills is rising
But despite this, many employers claim too much money is being spent on training school leavers and not enough on reskilling older workers.

Shortages

As we've reported on Working Lunch in the past, the construction industry has been blighted by shortages.

During the recession of the 1980s, the industry didn't recruit. Now, as older workers retire, there's no-one to replace them.

Over the next five years, the UK's builders say they'll need to recruit:

  • 30,000 plumbers
  • 37,000 electricians
  • 56,000 carpenters and joiners

    Courses

    Bath City College provides a range of courses focused on construction. It is one of only four English colleges offering courses in stonemasonry.
    "I like using my hands'" says apprentice Peter

    About half of the 80 students are apprentices, employed by masons all over the country.

    No entry qualifications are needed - the students aim to leave with Level 2 or 3 NVQs.

    Many masons work on restoration projects. Bath also teaches the more ornate skills required in monumental masonry.

    Although there are only about 4,000 stonemasons in the UK, there is demand for their skills.

    Small companies

    Like many construction sectors, stonemasonry was hit by the recession. The work dried up and the handful of big players disappeared.

    It's now largely small companies and one-man bands, but the average earnings can be about 20,000.

    Ian Wilcox is a director of Corsham-based Farleigh Masonry, which employs 10 people and works mainly on restoration projects.

    Worthwhile

    He says persuading older workers to retrain alongside apprentices is a problem the authorities will have to overcome.

    There's also the task of persuading people it's worth learning a trade.

    "They either want to stack shelves in the supermarket or run IBM - nothing in between," says Ian.

    "But if you learn a trade, you'll never be short of work and the money is not bad.

    "We need to light up the imagination of the youngsters and encourage them in.

    "To focus on qualifications all the way down the line isn't necessarily the way forward."

    However, providing qualifications is the government's goal - what needs to be determined is who will supply the training.

    Colleges

    The colleges say they are the natural conduit - they already provide three times as much training as employers.

    But they say they are being squeezed for cash and need more funding to provide the courses industry wants.

    Liz: colleges can solve the problem

    "The new angle that the government is putting on our targets is about engaging with employers," says Liz McIntyre, principal at City of Bath College.

    But she dismisses claims colleges haven't done enough in the past.

    "We recognise it is our responsibilty to work with employers and find out exactly what they want," she says.

    "It's import that government ministers understand that colleges are the key to solving this problem."

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