Stewart Segal of AELP shares his thoughts on one of the challenges facing the employment and skills sector

Stewart Segal of AELP shares his thoughts on one of the challenges facing the employment and skills sector

24th February 2016

Leadership of Thinking – The Challenge for the Employment and Skills Sector

– Take control and you get followers

– Give control and you get leaders

I do not normally use   quotes found in management books because I do not generally agree with them. That’s because most of them talk about what the leaders need to do and how they can be better. This statement says that the best thing that a leader can do is to give up control to the real leaders in the business, the people that are making operational decisions day to day. The people that are talking to the customers, learners and employers.

This is very difficult for leaders that are under all sorts of operational pressures. It’s easy to ‘give control’ to your teams when things are going well, when there are lots of opportunities to grow revenues. There are many pressures on the employment and skills sector including changes to programmes for the long term unemployed, devolution of budgets, delays in European Social Fund (ESF) funding which has been fragmented, Area Reviews and more. In times like these with all sorts of external ‘support’ organisations like Ofsted, Commissioners and funding agencies taking even more interest in the structure and governance of providers (that includes all providers!) then it is very tempting to take even more control back to top of the organisation.

I am sure most consultants who go in to organisations that are struggling will inevitably recommend taking back control, tightening up processes and slimming down structures. Sometimes that will be the only thing to do. However in the long term keeping tight control at the top of the organisation does not create the sort of environment where teams innovate, go the extra mile and really drive good customer responsive provision. Some may not agree with me and prefer to work in an environment where decision making is kept to a few people at the top. I don’t think this works for very long.

The biggest change in employment and skills sector is not the structural change that government always focus on such as devolution and Area Reviews, it’s the shift in focus on who the customer is. I am sure that every provider goes through those strategic reviews where you try and decide who the customer is. Is it the learner, the employer or the funder? It was always a difficult balancing act but the balance is definitely moving to the employer who will be paying the Apprenticeship Levy for example and the learner who may be taking a loan. Perhaps it should have been the case already where the real customer drives the provision. However if you are to survive in the market you have to be aware of what the funder wants. This requires a different way of thinking and a more commercial mind set.

To get that balance right we will need lots of leaders and leaders that are working with the customer and making the really difficult decisions that customers demand. The only way is to give control but I also know how scary that can be for those leaders who have that control now. I am not sure that the governance model that Colleges have is an easy one so perhaps there will be different models used as part of the restructuring. Charities have a similar issue but it is as big a challenge for all providers so we need to support those leaders who will need to build the confidence in a system that requires fresh thinking to position the sector for the future, not just small peripheral changes each year. We have to lead thinking and have some stability to build the confidence that will allow us to give control and create more leaders. That is why I was delighted that FETL funded our project with 157 to look at new leaders in the system. FETL’s upcoming Parliamentary Symposium on creating a more commercially minded sector also takes thinking to a new level.

FETL as well as sector bodies and support organisations have an important role to create that sort of employment and skills sector required to help boost productivity and serve learners in the best way possible.

Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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