Published: 02/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5958 Page 9

The sector skills agreement 'deal' will demand employer engagement, influence the supply of training provision and satisfy employees' career ambitions, writes Helen Fields

The sector skills agreement is the critical mechanism through which the new sector skills councils will deliver increased productivity and address skills gaps. It also provides greater skills opportunities and more responsive education and training to suit sector employment needs.

The practical outcome is a contract or 'deal' between employers, partner organisations - including education and training providers - the sector and government. The deal will ensure 'the skills the sector wants are the skills the sector gets' and will result in:

employers shaping and endorsing learning provision;

skills demand more directly shaping supply;

individuals benefiting from high-quality learning linked to better job prospects;

employees experiencing career development and opportunities that fulfil their potential.

The agreement will also influence the way sector skills councils and their delivery partners focus their efforts. Once in place, the agreement will drive service improvement by increasing workforce skills and productivity. All elements of the agreement need to be in place by January 2006.

Skills for Health seeks an agreement grounded in evidence and based on strong employer engagement. It must also be focused on priorities that make a difference to the standards of care, skills and productivity.

Describing the complex world of skills and competencies to employers and employees should be simplified and the basis for a common language and transferability of skills and competence is required.

Key partners signing up to the agreement include government departments, higher and further education institutions, strategic health authorities and UK equivalents, independent and voluntary sector providers and agencies, the Learning and Skills Council, trade unions and regulatory and professional bodies. Engaging these stakeholders is a major challenge and Skills for Health wants to use the agreement as the vehicle for this engagement over the longer term.

Skills for Health chair and Cheshire and Merseyside SHA chief executive Chris Hannah says: 'Once the sector skills agreement is in place it must play a key role in helping service improvements through increasing the skills and productivity of the workforce. We will need all the elements in place by January 2006.'

Drivers for change

Each region in the UK will wish to see specific skills needs profiles and solutions for their specific workforce policies. Taken together these changes represent radical modernisation of services and place patients and service users at the centre of a personalised healthcare system.

This is to be delivered through a plurality of providers with increasing use of the voluntary and independent sectors. Diagnostic services will be transformed and waiting times reduced. The public health agenda and the needs of patients in long-term care will be addressed.

Skills for Health chief executive John Rogers emphasises that 'these changes generate significant workforce implications centred on continued growth in workforce capacity and the need for staff to engage with patients in new ways'.

He believes the agreement will help employers further improve workforce efficiency and base their plans around recognised skills and competences, aligned with a modern pay and reward system. The other key challenge is to ensure the agreement supports solutions and outcomes that respond to long-standing overall demographic and labour market conditions and the under-investment and achievement in those parts of the workforce without qualifications.

What is already happening?

Before and since receiving its licence, Skills for Health developed its labour market intelligence.

These developments will take place alongside Agenda for Change, national service frameworks and workforce enhancement in the voluntary and independent sectors.

Skills for Health is also building its capacity at regional and country level to assist partnership working and the development of the regional dimensions of the sector skills agreement.

Two major pieces of work have also been commissioned to develop the evidence base and skills needs assessment for the agreement. The first will develop qualitative evidence through a series of skills visioning workshops facilitated by the King's Fund (in collaboration with the London School of Economics' urban partnerships group). They will involve employers and other stakeholders across the UK focusing on future scenarios developed with a group of senior service managers. Mr Rogers expects that one of the outcomes of the workshops will be a sustainable model for employer engagement.

A second piece of work is gathering quantitative evidence for stage one. This involves mapping current multiple and inconsistent sources of workforce data and updating the Skills for Health labour market assessment.

Mr Rogers stresses that both programmes will be aligned as closely as possible to build on existing activity. They will also avoid duplication and ensure that the model for employer engagement fits with what already works well and simplifies current arrangements. .

Helen Fields is associate director of policy and sector skills agreement co-ordinator for Skills for Health.


Assessment of current and future skills needs

Analysis of productivity trends in the sector over five to 10 years: analysis of areas of low skills and consequent short, medium and long-term needs to meet productivity and competitiveness goals.

Assessment of current provision

Assessing the effectiveness of current workforce training and development linked to the assessment of skill needs.

Analysis of gaps and weaknesses

Highlight key areas of skills shortages and gaps, leading to an agreement of objectives for solutions and measures.

Assessment of the scope for collaborative action

Developing agreement between employers and partners to tackle skills gaps and shaping the action to be taken.

Developing a costed action plan

The culmination of the sector skills agreement will include all partners setting out their contributions, outcomes and outputs, the impact on productivity and competitiveness and the agreement evaluation measures.