Unionlearn conference 2013

The 2013 unionlearn conference took place on Monday, 28th October 2013 at Congress House, London.

Read the speeches

This is the text, taken from audio tape, of the Speech delivered by Vince Cable, Secretary of State at BIS, to the Unionlearn Annual Conference, on 28 October 2013, at TUC Congress House in London.

Thank you very much for welcoming me back. This is my second unionlearn conference and it is a good opportunity for me to just express my appreciation of the really valuable work that is done here. I am very conscious that unionlearn reaches very substantial numbers of disadvantaged workers, people who face big access barriers to learning and that a lot of the work that is done by the union reps is done on a voluntary basis, so I just want to express my appreciation for what you do.

There are many, many examples of really good practice and achievement and I think Frances has probably mentioned some of them but I just want to name a few examples that caught my eye. The work that's been done with the Army reserve to improve workforce skills in Army training; there is the recruitment of just under a 1,000 maths champions in the last year to improve workplace numeracy; the Technician Pathways to get more Technicians professionally registered, there is a big push at the moment led by Lord Sainsbury actually to develop technician qualifications and training and you very are much part of that. In London specifically, the traineeship for the Elephant and Castle regeneration, and again as Frances mentioned in her address, 5,000 apprenticeship places and support for thousands more.

As someone that has to watch the pennies something that struck me is I understand that something in order of every pound of the government funding is attracting between 3 and 5 pounds from employers who also clearly value what's happening under this program. That is the basis of government support and we put in 19 million this year. Whitehall has to challenge and check that we are getting value for money. But I think in view of the record of unionlearn and the value that it produces I don't see any problem in future continuing support for this really admiral program.

And the challenge is very brutally clear and it was set out in the OECD survey a few weeks ago that, if you compare Britain with other OECD Countries, we rank about average for literacy and way below average for numeracy. Of about 17 out of 24 countries, we are near the bottom of the league. And for people who have already left education and are already in the workplace, there are some alarming numbers showing that 17% of all adults have low proficiency in literature and about 24% have low levels of competence in numeracy. The challenge is enormous in getting the existing workforce to up to what is regarded as good international standards in numeracy and literacy. That is the challenge and it is a massive one.

Let me just put it in the kind of wider context of what we try to do in government to address the bigger question. In my department of BIS, partly through innovation but mainly skills, what we try to develop is an approach to skill training which uses very much the apprenticeship template. We've had 1.5 million apprenticeship starts; I took the view from the beginning of the Government that we were faced with some pretty awful financial cuts, like most parts of Government. But I took the view in my own department that I wanted training in particular for apprenticeships to be given priority and additional resources, not less.

A lot of money has now gone into apprenticeships training and we are getting a lot of people through the system, I think it is psychologically already having quite a big an impact. I think employers are beginning to acknowledge that this is actually a very good model of training. A lot of them now are doing it anyway with or without the Government 50/50 funding scheme. I think a lot of young people are beginning to recognise the problems of the old fashioned apartheid system where a lot of clever people go to university and other people do vocational training which is seen as a second class thing. I think that awful barrier that we've had in this country is beginning to breakdown.

I discovered recently that it is now more difficult to get an apprenticeship in Jaguar/Landrover or Nissan or BAE than it is to get into Oxford or Cambridge; because of the quality of apprenticeship training that is on offer. That is quite a big psychological breakthrough and I think if we can cement that we will have really achieved something.

But it is not just a question of numbers, numbers are important but it is also a question of quality. We've recently had a review by someone called Doug Richard who is an entrepreneur and unionlearn has been involved in that process and on the back of it today we launched a plan for apprenticeship reform that has various elements to it, it will mean clearer, shorter apprenticeships and standards that are more specific. We have got a series of professional body or employer led trailblazers which are developing apprenticeship standards in areas like aerospace, digital industries and financial services.

And on top of the so called Richard reforms what we have been trying to do is to try and develop the concept of employer ownership; of getting businesses to own the idea that they can drive apprenticeship training in a way that meets real skill needs and not what the providers, the colleges mainly, think people ought to have. And I think that's something which takes us closer to the German model which is something Frances described which is enviable. I think one of the things we learned from is that there are a whole lot of ways, apprenticeships are one, innovation's another, and banking is another, where we can learn from the Germans. And apprenticeship training in particular.

The heart of it is recognising the importance of ensuring that training does meet real skill requirements. That is the concept behind the Industrial Partnerships which lie behind the employer ownership idea; Charlie Mayfield, who will come on the stage after me, will relate this to the work of the UKCES, the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, on which the union movements is represented with Frances, Dave Prentis, Graeme Smith and Gail Gartmail.

To give just one particular example of how I feel this new approach to apprenticeship training works very well, is the unionlearn Green Skills Partnership. This is essentially looking at retro fitting of buildings, new buildings for green energy standards, renewable, waste management; it is something that not just the trade unions and their employers, but the sector skills council, colleges, and third sector have been involved in. We certainly regard this as a very good role model of how the new type of training and apprenticeship should operate and it's been extended in what is called the Energy and Efficiency Partnership.

Now, there is a lot of drama going on at the moment around energy companies who are being accused of charging too much and the accusation that we have too much green taxation and all the rest of it. But, of course, if we had a bit more energy efficiency in homes and industries some of the argument would became academic. In order to get that energy efficiency, you will have to have skilled people. And this particular project just seems to be actually at the very heart of different government objectives in relation to energy policy as well as skill training.

But let me just wrap this up by putting this into a wider context, like Frances; unionlearn is part of a bigger skills picture and the skills picture is part of a bigger approach to long term economic policy that I call industrial strategy. I think when I first came to see you and spoke shortly after I got my present job, a whole lot of things were happening. Remember the drama around procurement on the railways and the point that was being made from the floor, why can't we have a long term approach to all of this? Why can't we locate manufacturing in a strategic kind of way and why can't we have government and industry working together?

And I took all that to heart and we have in fact now got a coherent approach to industrial partnership, we have 11 sectors, the first time since the late 1970's we've had that approach to sectoral work in industry and we are approaching various areas where Government has an obligation to become involved because there are serious market failures, noticeably in skills and innovation. Through procurement for example a whole lot of good things are beginning to emerge. It is most obvious in the automotive sector where we have a large scale of investment going in from the big producers, large increases in output; and a lot of that is motivated by the fact that we have a very clear long term framework in which the industry can operate.

The same thing is happening in the aerospace sector and we trying to generate a similar kind of approach in the supply chains for the new energy sectors, whether it is oil or gas in the North Sea or Nuclear or the new offshore wind. Similarly in some of the more elusive areas like information technology or financial services. But we are trying to get a strategic approach and Frances is a permanent member of the industrial strategy council that is overseeing this whole process. I think we now have efficient buy in to ensure that this approach will go from one government to another. It is not just politics it is decisive and that is what business and indeed what the trade union are very anxious to see and we welcome the trade union involvement in that process. It is a constructive contribution and quite active in some of the sector areas and indeed more generally with Frances and it is something I very much welcome.

So I see unionlearn as a really excellent learning block and I just want to again thank you, for those of you who are making it work, and I see it as part of broader collaborative framework. So thank you very much indeed.