The 39 local enterprise partnerships really do want to raise skill and employability levels as a fundamental to driving local growth, says David Frost

Perhaps one of the most dispiriting aspects of working with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) is that skills and employability feature at the top of all of their agendas. But if the 39 LEPs are to have responsibility for driving growth, they will be hampered if they do not raise skill levels, particularly employability skills, in their areas.

Why is this dispiriting? Because we have spent billions trying to resolve it. We had a huge focus in the decade to 2007, but much went on before this. A litany of agencies and acronyms: the training boards, the MSC; The TECs; the LSC — and all the others in between.

All were supposedly set up to resolve the endless mismatch between the skills that employers needed and what was being provided locally, and a real concern that many young people were leaving education deeply unprepared for the world of work.

We seem to have made little progress on this central issue.

LEPs, after a slow start, are now very much the focus of the drive to promote growth. Lord Heseltine’s report, No stone unturned, gave real stimulus to the LEP network.

This was further built on by the Autumn statement in December and the Budget in the spring of this year. LEPs are the only game in town at present in respect of economic development.

What is clear is that the business and civic leaders understand the scale of the skills issue; they know that it is too late to sort these problems when a young person is 18.

There is a need to work in schools, just as there is a need for flexible and high quality work experience. There is a need for impartial and quality careers advice, which will be delivered in an increasingly non-traditional way. And there is a need to market the benefits of increasingly high quality apprenticeships.

FE will have to show the added value it is giving to young people in return for the substantial levels of funding that providers continue to receive”

Too many young school-leavers go on to higher education, which is not providing them with the opportunities that they were led to believe would result from choosing this route.

That is why employers have become such strong advocates for the University Technical Colleges and, increasingly, the studio schools that are sprouting up across the country.

FE has a vital role to play in an era of greater focus on vocational education. Equally, FE will have to show the added value it is giving to young people in return for the substantial levels of funding that providers continue to receive. LEPs will have a deep interest in whether course provision is geared to the needs of employers and whether there is a real understanding by management within colleges, of local business and employer skill needs over the coming years.

This will have to be more than LEPs having a seat on a college governing body and more than an FE principal being on the LEP board.

We are at a crossroads. We have a real opportunity to make a once in a lifetime change.  LEPs can articulate the needs of business in respect of skills. They can then influence local provision – and they should be able to do this through financial levers and the single pot.

But they must be deeply engaged with business themselves, all business. They have to encourage companies to train and they have to lead and co-ordinate provision.

I know that the 39 LEPs are up for this challenge and really do want to raise skill and employability levels as a fundamental to driving local growth. We move at increasing pace towards a very interesting future.

David Frost, chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership Network