Manchester City Football Club may be struggling behind their premiership rivals when it comes to football skills, but off the pitch they are a model team, firmly on the ball. Not only are they providing skills training to their existing employees in an attempt to stimulate creativity within the business and increase staff retention, but they are also finding ways to tackle their skills shortage. "I am sitting on about 200 vacancies, but can't find the people to fill them," said Peter Bradshaw, manager of social responsibility at the club. At their new site in a deprived area of east Manchester, Bradshaw is training local people to fill these roles. "It's about making learning sexy," he said.
The way to do that is through a joined-up approach, and having forums that allow organisations to talk to one another. The participants at the round-table discussion organised by the New Statesman and Fellows' Associates, held at Manchester United's Old Trafford football stadium, agreed that the event was a rare example of interactive debate around the skills agenda.
It was hard not to be seduced by the impressive backdrop, home to some of the world's best footballers. But Philip Townsend, United's communications manager, admitted that skills off the pitch were not so easily acquired. "Identifying your own training needs is actually quite difficult," he said. "We are only just starting to think about it and it is scary for everyone concerned." He explained that one of the problems was a fear that people were being trained to leave. "How do you persuade people who have been here for 40 years that they need to have new skills?" he asked.
The problem of incentive, for both businesses and individuals, was a general cause of concern. Peter Lauener from the Department for Education and Skills found it puzzling. "People with skills get paid more than people without skills. That seems like a good incentive to me," he said. Aminata Sessay, acting head of Manchester Islamic School for Girls, believed that people were often just lazy and content to live on benefits. But that opinion was not widely shared. Perhaps, as Lauener suggested, it was a question of emphasising the cash benefits of training. But as Walt Crowson of the Greater Manchester Adult Learners Forum pointed out, dependency culture was not that simple an issue. "Working to earn money is not in their consciousness. We have to start from scratch," he said.
In Manchester, that is starting to happen. Old buildings are being pulled down and new ones erected. People are feeling better about their environment, and the "feel-good factor" is spreading. The economy of the north-west has grown significantly over the past few years, and many jobs have been created. But the jobs need to be linked to disengaged communities, of which there are many in the region. Again, Brad- shaw was the hero of the day. To encourage them to get off benefits, his scheme allows people to gain skills without their benefits being affected, and then pays a decent salary for the working/training programme. Bradshaw is providing the key to getting people into work, which he referred to as "employability skills", or real "skills for life".
But should the skills agenda also include an element of self-improvement? Eddie Little, from the Workplace Basic Skills Network, believed that government targets to increase the number of people with basic skills should focus on social inclusion as well as economic performance.
Ann Murphy, a union learning representative with Usdaw, said that trade unions were doing just this. "There is no compulsion for employers to up-skill their staff," she said. When they put the emphasis on the individual, they found that people were keen to learn precisely because it was something they wanted rather than something the employer wanted. Linda Florance, chief executive of Skillfast UK, thought that the small businesses without access to union learning reps suffered. But Murphy didn't agree. "It is the sector rather than the size of the employer," she said, citing Tesco as an example. Tesco has good learning agreements in its large distribution sites, but on the retail side it has "a million and one excuses about why it can't do it".
Despite this example, there was concern that small to medium-sized businesses were being left by the wayside. One suggestion was that people should be given more incentive to learn outside of working hours. When Sessay started teaching, her school had no training funds. She had the vision to see the benefits of further training and so pursued it herself. She also encouraged colleagues to do the same. Staff who have only one subject to offer her school are of little use, she explained. Alan Manning, secretary of the TUC North-west Regional Council, pointed out that employees were more likely to take on further training if it was available in the workplace, in the form of "learning centres". Many people have negative experiences of formal education, and providing facilities in the workplace breaks down those barriers.
But what is the best way to raise skill levels in the north-west so that the region can benefit from the extra £13bn that would be generated if productivity levels were raised to the UK average? The answer kept coming back to schools and universit- ies. "As a phrase, 'basic skills' is very popular," explained Andrew Nelson from the DfES. "But when everything becomes about basic skills, numeracy and literacy get watered down." It was agreed that there needs to be more emphasis on those subjects in schools to avoid simply adding to the number of unskilled adults. Sessay believed there was a lack of good teachers. "I have to train my teachers to teach subjects such as maths," she said. On the subject of universities, Bradshaw was particularly passionate. "We have to make our needs sexy, rather than churning out graduates with degrees in sexy courses." He lamented that there was a surplus of sports scientists, for example, while sports centres were closing because there were no water technicians available. On graduates he was clear. "They can't communicate and they're no good to me," he insisted, despite protestations from Lauener, who reminded him that all the evidence suggested that graduates earn more than anyone else.
Tempting people into training in the sexy field of football might be straightforward, but it was clear that other sectors needed a helping hand. Florance suggested that industry needed to be influencing the curriculum more, and that courses serving skills needs would have to be created at the expense of more popular but less useful courses. Murphy believed that a change in funding was also necessary to produce the right employees.
"Studying past the basic skills level is expensive," she explained. "People just can't afford to make that leap, and that's something we need to address."
So where does the north-west fit into the bigger picture? "We need national standards and a national identity," said Lauener. He praised the national TV campaigns and the use of celebrities such as Frank Skinner to endorse the message, but equally commended the initiatives being pioneered on a local level. No doubt Ivan Lewis, under-secretary for skills at the DfES, would have had a lot to say had he not been detained in London for a parliamentary vote on the terrorism bill, but Manning was his mouthpiece: "In Ivan's words, if things are getting in the way at a local level, let us know and we can change it at the centre."
If lifelong United fans could feel their loyalty cracking in the face of City's excellent opposition (as was the case), then anything is possible.
Jenni Murray (Chair) TV/radio broadcaster
David Barton Director, Literacy Research Centre, Lancaster University
Peter Bradshaw Manager of social responsibility, Manchester City Football Club
Walt Crowson Greater Manchester Adult Learners Forum
Linda Florance Chief executive, Skillfast-UK
Paul Holme Executive director, Greater Merseyside Learning and Skills Council
Frank Hont Regional secretary, Unison North-west
Peter Lauener Director for Qualifications and Young People's Group, DfES
Eddie Little Director of operations, Workplace Basic Skills Network
Alan Manning Regional secretary, TUC North-west Regional Council
Ann Murphy National co-ordinator for lifelong learning, Usdaw
Andrew Nelson North-west regional director, Skills for Life strategy unit, DfES
Jane Ogden Policy executive (employment and skills)
Aminata Sessay Acting head, Manchester Islamic School for Girls
Philip Townsend Director of communications, Manchester United Football Club