‘Welsh Rottweiler’ calls for harmony

‘It takes two hands to clap,’ Adrian Webb, chair of the Welsh Employment and Skills board told the audience at last week’s Welfare to Work Wales conference. ‘We need employment and skills systems that work in harmony.’

Despite all the talk of joined up thinking, there are still too few connections between welfare support and skills provision.

The situation is more acute in Wales, where skills are devolved to the Welsh Assembly while employment is not.

So, while Wales now has a ‘Welsh Rottweiler’, as Webb describes himself, biting at the heels of government to ensure skills get top priority, it dances to Westminster’s tune when it comes to helping the unemployed find work.

But as we were constantly reminded during the conference, Wales is not England. The Welsh may be struggling as much as the English from the recent spike in unemployment – especially among young people – but their particular industrial history, demographics and geography mean the causes and solutions to their unemployment situation are unique to them.

Rhodri Morgan led the audience through an unscripted tour of Welsh history. Wales was the most specialized industrial culture in Europe until the death of the steel and mining industries.

Unlike England, Wales never had a boom; few firms in Wales have discharged surplus staff and won’t be re-hiring when the economy picks up. With 50% of adults ‘dysfunctional’ in numeracy and 12% of the population economically inactive, Wales’s needs to upskill its workforce and create new, appropriate jobs for a 21st century economy.

But it needs do this at a pace that is right for Wales, ensuring new skills are taught at the same time as jobs for the newly-skilled are created. Webb spoke passionately about the need to build a culture of learning in a country where most followed their fathers down the pit or into steel works, while at the same time ensuring higher education does not expand too fast to cause a mass exodus.

The case for education and skills to be developed in parallel with the economy could not be clearer. Wales is doing what it can within the constraints of its administration. Rather than ‘stockpiling’ high skills as in England, it is identifying those skills that will be needed in the new economy.

One scheme provides training in the installation of smart energy meters that every home will need by 2020. Morgan said the recession offers Wales the chance to show its mettle, and Welsh initiatives such as Proact and React (which help individuals and businesses upskill during the downturn) have received global acclaim.

But the Welsh Employment and Skills Board says it needs maximum flexibility from DWP if it is to upskill for a new economy.

In Wales the recession has laid bare its dire need for new skills. The rest of the UK could also take lessons from the ‘Welsh Rottweiler’ as he attempts to connect growing unemployment with appropriate skills at a local level.


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