>>The New skills strategy Aims to match training courses to industry needs, says Paul Wilkinson

The government’s Skills White Paper 2005, which sets out a strategy for ensuring employees have the skills that their employers need, has been welcomed by all sectors of industry, but none should be more pleased than those at the sharp end of the food chain - the grocery retailers.
Food retailers, from the largest to the smallest, should be jumping for joy.
Why? Because having a better skilled workforce at all stages in the food chain will be the most effective way of innovating and driving down costs.
That means greater productivity, higher profitability and, most important, lower prices for the consumer. And nowhere is there greater political and social pressure to keep consumer prices down than at the food store checkout.
Improving skills is at the heart of the solution, and after years of employers complaining about the scarcity of good recruits and relevant training, things are now starting to change for the better.
But in order to reap the benefits, employers must play their part now.
It is well understood that investment is the route to driving out costs, but it never ceases to amaze me how little understanding there is that investment focused on people delivers better returns in efficiency and cost savings than anything else.
Most of the larger businesses know it. But the food chain also depends on tens of thousands of small businesses, most of them employing 10 or fewer people.
Research shows that the majority of these businesses don’t invest in training at all. Instead, they find a way of coping with what they’ve got.
Currently the standard and capability of recruits is not determined by what business needs but by what the schools, colleges and universities can produce. No successful supplier would ignore its customers’ needs the way the education sector does.
Recruits in production jobs have lacked even the most basic of employability skills, such as functional literacy and numeracy.
And those higher up the ability scale have not had the opportunity to learn relevant vocational skills that would equip them better for the world of commerce in general and the food industry in particular.
Team leadership is also a universal problem with serious skills gaps.
Now, for the first time, there is a co-
ordinated plan in place to help all employers to recruit and develop employees who have better basic skills and have benefited from relevant, employer-driven, vocational training.
Some benefits are in the development phase - such as empowering employers, through the new sector skills councils, to influence directly the kind of vocational courses and qualifications that are delivered by schools, colleges and universities, and to ensure that funding is targeted more directly into the provision of industry-specific courses and teaching resources.
Other benefits are coming on stream now, such as the National Employer Training Programme, which provides free vocational training up to NVQ Level 2. It’s relevant for manual workers and those up to the level of semi-skilled and supervisory jobs. Level 2 equates to five good GCSEs, grades A to C.
There are also new pilot schemes in which the government will fund vocational training up to Level 3. This is appropriate to technician, craft and associate professional jobs, and equates to two A Levels.
Here’s the challenge. Employees must be given time off to do the study.
Will employers throughout the food chain seize this opportunity? I hope so for everyone’s sake.
n Paul Wilkinson owns Fox’s Confectionery and is chairman of Improve, the food and drink sector skills council