Select Committee on Public Accounts Tenth Report

3  The targeting of skills needs

Setting corporate objectives and targets

23. We were surprised to find that, when Jobskills was set up, job attainment was not a formally-stated objective, nor was there an objective to match training provision with the skills needs of the Northern Ireland economy. Given the absence of such basic objectives, it is of no surprise to us that the programme has experienced difficulties in both these areas. Setting appropriate objectives, with measurable targets, at the outset is essential to ensuring that a programme is focused on the key outcomes.[22]

24. The Department's failure to set proper targets was not isolated to the early days of the programme. We noted other instances where it had failed to apply the basics of good administration. For example, although, in 2000, the Department had established new objectives to align Jobskills more closely with the skills needs of the economy, it had not developed specific, measurable and time-bounded targets against which to monitor and report progress. In our view, this is the sort of fundamental good practice that any responsible body would be applying as a matter of course.[23]

Forecasting of skills needs

25. We found it incredible that, during the 1990s, the Department had no comprehensive data on the skills needs of the Northern Ireland economy and no clear system for forecasting and analysing those needs. This was despite the fact that it was spending over £65 million each year on Jobskills. The Department said that, while initially, it had only been focusing on the broader skills needs of local industry, it subsequently set up its 'Skills Task Force' to assist in the better targeting of training. Not surprisingly, the Task Force reported its concern that the level of training provision supplied under the vocational system failed to meet the needs of employers. The failure to set up an effective system to forecast and analyse skills needs was a serious omission and one that has proved detrimental to many Jobskills trainees and Northern Ireland employers.[24]

Skills mismatch between Jobskills and the needs of Northern Ireland employers

26. An Audit Office survey indicated that a large proportion of the skills attained by trainees have not been used in the workplace - 29% of those surveyed did not use the skills learnt "at all" and a further 20% indicated that they used the skills only "a little". Overall, the Audit Office estimated a potential 'skills mismatch' of 36%. In addition, the survey found that some 45% of trainees were not employed, studying or training in the occupational area in which they trained in Jobskills.[25]

27. We asked why the Department had been providing training for the wrong jobs. The Accounting Officer accepted that a number of participants, particularly those in the lower skilled areas, were not necessarily going into the trade in which they had trained. However, he said that they were getting general skills, such as literacy and numeracy, so that they could broadly get into employment. While we accept that generic skills developed on Jobskills will be beneficial to trainees moving to employment, the fact remains that there is a significant level of mismatch in the occupational skills being provided by Jobskills. As such, a very substantial proportion of training delivered under the programme can be considered as nugatory. Not only does this represent poor value for taxpayers' money, it also highlights the extent to which Jobskills has failed to meet the needs of the Northern Ireland economy.[26]

28. We were told that some two-thirds of young people on Jobskills are now in the designated priority skills areas. While this is encouraging, the vast majority of trainees in the designated areas lie within the construction and engineering sectors. The Department must make special efforts to increase the numbers of trainees in the three remaining priority areas of Tourism and Hospitality, Electronics and Information Technology.[27]

29. It was not clear to us whether, having seen the results of the Audit Office survey, the Department had drawn any lessons from the analysis and made any changes in the way that Jobskills was structured. We asked whether we might see a dramatic improvement in the degree of skills mismatch. We also sought an indication as to what level of skills mismatch the Department would regard as acceptable, given that a 'perfect' match is not achievable. The Department failed to provide any indication. In a note submitted after the hearing, it merely said that it will review the survey questionnaire to gain a better indication of how skills developed through training are transferred to the workplace.[28]

30. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Department had not analysed the findings of the Audit Office questionnaire at the earliest opportunity. As with many other aspects in its running of this programme, the Department has demonstrated a worrying degree of complacency in the face of compelling evidence that Jobskills is not properly meeting the needs of its client groups. It must take its responsibilities more seriously. We expect the Department, as a matter of urgency, to set specific, measurable and time-bounded targets for a reduction in the level of skills mismatch. Similarly, targets should be set for increasing the extent to which trainees are subsequently employed in the occupational area in which they trained in Jobskills.

Abuse of Jobskills as low cost labour

31. We were concerned to read in the C&AG's Report that around one-quarter of employers seemed to be using Jobskills on a 'rolling' basis, as a source of low cost labour for unskilled positions. In our view, the problem does not lie solely with employers. Given that Training Organisations are responsible for placement of trainees with employers, they too have a duty to prevent this type of abuse of the programme. We expect the Department to take firm action to deal with the problem.[29]

22   Qq 71, 107; C&AG's Report, para 4.1 Back

23   Qq 98-102; C&AG's Report, para 4.11 Back

24   Qq 68-70, 108; C&AG's Report, paras 4.1-4.2, 4.6 Back

25   C&AG's Report, paras 4.17-4.18 and Figure 19 Back

26   Qq 11-12, 40 Back

27   Qq12, 40; C&AG's Report, para 4.14 and Figure 17 Back

28   Qq 109-112; Ev 17 Back

29   Qq 56-58; C&AG's Report, para 4.4 Back

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