NS Interview - Ivan Lewis

The minister for skills always wanted to be a footballer. Are his goals for Britain's workforce any

It's a difficult skill to acquire but a good one to have - sounding both reasonable and earnest in everything you say. It means that even when coming out with such David Brent-esque comments as "If UK plc is going to be ahead of the game, there is never going to be a time when we can take our eye off skills", Ivan Lewis still appears sincere and likeable. Perhaps this is because Lewis is a man who firmly believes in the job he is doing. He has been a minister in the Department for Education and Skills since June 2001, holding four positions with various permutations of the words "young", "adult", "skills", "people" and "learning". It is currently minister for skills and vocational education, but he has also been minister for young people and learning, minister for adult learning and skills, and minister for young people and adult skills.

Lewis first became active in the community as a teenager, when he got involved in voluntary work helping people with learning disabilities, and he credits this with "discovering what I wanted to do with my life". As an adult, he worked in community care groups and social services, and was a councillor for Bury Borough before being elected to parliament as member for Bury South in 1997. So it's no surprise that even when talking about skills in the workplace and their importance for economic success, Lewis constantly returns to the benefits that skills bring to people and communities.

"It's about something I describe as 'the dignity of self-improvement', which for many adults is about their role as parents and grandparents and their ability to help their own children and grandchildren in their learning. We all know, if that happens, there's a much greater chance of those children succeeding and doing well, and thus replacing intergenerational deprivation with intergenerational advance."

The "dignity of self-improvement" is a phrase Lewis came to through his contact with adult learners. But, he says, it needs to be about more than just encouraging the younger generation. "There's an interrelationship between social justice and economic success, and there is no better lever than skills, in terms of creating a fairer society by offering opportunities to people who have in the past been denied those opportunities. What's in it for people is employability. In a world where the job for life is dead, the imperative is employability for life. It's not simply having a job, but also aspiring to have a career."

This is not to say that Lewis can't play the economic card when necessary: "Skills and training are absolutely integral to business success. Those businesses that invest in the skills of their people will be, in a competitive, tight economy, the most successful. Businesses that do not embrace this are going to find themselves left behind."

To help businesses, Lewis is spearheading a three-pronged approach. "First of all, we develop the new Sector Skills Councils, which now cover about 80 per cent of the economy and which are organised on a sector by sector basis. We are challenging those employers to articulate clearly what their training needs are. Second, there's the bottom-up approach, learning the lesson from the Employer Training Pilots and building a national programme where brokers literally walk through the door, sit down with the employer and say 'What are your training needs?' and 'We can bring those needs from the classroom to the workplace, sort out the hassle and bureaucracy and make it easier for you to access'. The third element is our communication and marketing. My simple message to employers is that investing in skills is about business, bottom line."

This applies to businesses of all sizes, from bus companies with learning centres in depots to the Walkers Crisps factory in Easington in the north-east, which Lewis recently visited. He was pleased to see skills being made a priority from the very top: "The managing director there said, 'I am going to make this a priority, I believe this will make a difference'. And it is making a tremendous difference to morale and to competitiveness."

Nor is it just the private sector where training needs to be taken seriously: "If you want to create customer-focused, personalised, 21st-century public services with the user at their heart, you can only do that if you have skilled leaders, skilled middle management and skilled front-line workers. It's all right having aspirations about modern public services, but you've got to have the skills set to be able to deliver them." The goal, however, is constantly moving. "If you think about the perpetual technological change, we're always going to be in a race against time to have the necessary skilled population to respond to the challenges of an ever-changing global market place."

To achieve this, Lewis is calling for a tripartite agreement between the government, employers and individuals. "In terms of basic skills and the NVQ level 2 entitlement, because that represents essentially a failure of the compulsory education system, it is the state's responsibility to fund it. But we do believe that, for higher qualifications, it's right that we expect a greater level of contribution from employers and from individuals - although we do accept that, in certain circumstances where there is market failure, the government should be flexible about considering funding some of that as well." Which sounds great, until he adds: "But not 100 per cent."

Lewis applauds the way that trade unions have participated: "The trade union learning projects and the trade union learning representatives have been a major advance in terms of their engagement with this agenda. I believe the TUC now sees this as being essential to trade union modernisation, and I also believe that the general secretaries of many of the trade unions no longer see it as a soft underbelly of the movement, but actually see it as about demonstrating the relevance of trade unionism. You only have to go to a workplace, see a trade union project in action and talk to the people who are benefiting, whose lives are being transformed, who for the first time feel a sense of dignity and are learning skills after maybe a dreadful experience at school. And it's the trade union giving them this opportunity."

The minister is keen to be as innovative as necessary in order to get to the hard-to-reach groups in what he describes as "low-aspiration, low-expectation communities". "We've got to be imaginative about how we get to those people. We have to use the community and voluntary sector, including residents' and tenants' groups. We also have to use the trade unions, grass-roots organisations and community leaders, including the many communities in which there are informal leadership structures."

Obviously, Lewis would hope that his vision of an aspirational, skilled workforce and heightened economic success is shared by the Labour leadership. And at the moment he can be reassured that his enthusiasm for this seems to have paid off. "What the skills white paper is about is saying: 'Wherever you are now, you can do better, and the system's job is to help you get from where you are now to wherever you are capable of going and wherever you want to go.' The Prime Minster and the Chancellor, when they speak about education now - and this is quite a significant change over the past 18 months - include a focus on the adult learning and adult skills agenda. It's going to feature very heavily in our third-term vision."

Because Lewis is a nice bloke, he takes seriously my proposition that it is important to have some very low-skilled people to do the really rubbish jobs that no one else wants to do. "No, I don't accept that. I think that the low-skill, low- pay equilibrium is very damaging, because it limits the aspirations and ambitions of far too many people. Everybody has the potential to be better skilled than they are at the moment, whether they have no skills or whether they have relatively high-level skills. The system's job should be to support the individual to pursue their personal goals and whatever their potential is."

And by "everybody", he means even himself. "I still feel very nervous and hesitant about using IT," he admits. At least he can do something about that, unlike the other area the avid Manchester City fan identifies as a problem: "I always wanted to be a professional footballer." As he ruefully points out, "it might be a bit late".