If employers are to be given the driving seat in workforce development, they have to be given the keys to the car, says Tom Bewick

The mantra coming out of Whitehall is that our country operates a skills and apprenticeship system owned and “driven by employers”. In fact, just about every government white paper since the 196Os has promised to address Britain’s historic weakness in technical education and work-based learning by giving employers a far greater say over how workforce development is executed.

Employers are in the back seat of a bureaucratic machine

This ideology reached its apotheosis in November 2011 when the then prime minister, David Cameron, announced the employer ownership pilots (EOP). The design of this wheeze to get more firms training was incredibly simple. By giving employers direct access to £350 million of public money it was thought that all ministers had to do was sit back and watch the skills revolution unfold. After all, employers were now designing, as well as purchasing, the training they actually needed.

Unfortunately, independent evaluation of the pilots over five years has concluded: “There is no evidence to suggest that EOP has changed attitudes towards training or that it led to subsequent increases in the number of staff trained.” In other words, the Treasury would have achieved just as much success if it had simply taken a helicopter stuffed full of £50 notes and dropped them somewhere over an out-of-town industrial estate. The EOP was an abject failure because massive deadweight costs occurred from the fact the employers selected to take part would have done the training anyway.

It seems we never learn. The apprenticeship levy, reformed standards and now T-level route panels are trumpeted as great examples of “employers in the driving seat”. Of course, they are nothing of the sort. At best employers are travelling in the back seat of a bureaucratic machine that decides for them the journey they will be taking.

A more accurate description of England’s current skills model is that it is “technocrat-led”. Like puppet masters, parents play this kind of trick on their offspring all the time. The education secretary, who recently struggled to tell FE Week a single employer that supported the Institute for Apprenticeships, in fact highlights a much wider problem. We’ve allowed bright and extremely well meaning, but nevertheless unaccountable bureaucrats, to take over the running of our whole skills delivery model. Civil servants devise policy; they decide funding and procurement exercises; they regulate and enforce sanctions on anyone that steps out of line. Seriously, where are the recognisable and accountable employers in this model?

In Germany, which Damian Hinds visited recently, it is the mandatory membership of chambers of commerce that means employers are directly accountable for the decisions they make. Quality assurance is handled by industry bodies and the equivalent of the institute, BIBB, plays the supporting more technocratic role. So, it is worth asking policymakers, where is the meaningful involvement of employers in the English system? If the standards are wrong, or the assessment plans difficult to test (in theory all of these were developed by industry groups), how are these employers held to account when things don’t quite work out as planned?

People retain mixed views about the performance of sector skills councils that were introduced in the early Noughties. But at least the public had someone to blame and there can be no doubt the secretary of state knew exactly who the employer chairs were, because regular meetings would take place between them.

Ironically, countries around the world want to emulate sector skills bodies or something like the German chambers of commerce. Why? Because putting employers in the driving seat is about handing over the keys to the car, owned and funded, by the very firms that rely on and use the skills system. Handing out taxpayer funds and labelling it employer ownership or sticking ten worthy employees on a T-level route panel, is not an employer-led skills model. It’s a fallacy.