To quote the departing director general of the CBI, Howard Davies, 'Competitiveness is a term which has passed from academic jargon to cliche without moving through an intermediate stage of meaning.' The buzz word of the '90s has received a great deal of exposure - being used for everything from government White Papers to the Rugby World Cup. Even so, I make no excuses about arguing the case for national targets for education and training as a means of increasing our economic competitiveness at the international level.
In the UK we woke up later than most of our competitors to the massive changes which were taking place in the labour market as a result of technological developments. Our education and training policies were for too long based on the assumption that we needed a relatively small elite of very well educated and highly qualified people, alongside a group with traditional craft and technical skills, and a majority for whom a modest - and often failed - education to the age of 16 would suffice.
In recent years this has changed considerably. More students than ever before are achieving the equivalent of five or more higher grade GCSEs and over 40% of them are achieving an advanced level qualification by the age of 21. Nearly a third of our young people are now going on to higher education, compared to only 13% just over 10 years ago. What's more, the age of the 'information' or 'knowledge' worker is definitely upon us, where people need flexible and transferable skills, not least of which is the ability to continue learning all through their working lives.
Having said this, we need to continue raising our level of skills and qualifications if we are serious about remaining competitive in the next century. Just one example shows us the stark reality: the Koreans are aiming to have 80% of their young people achieving advanced level qualifications by the year 2000. In the UK, where our own national targets have just been revised (and, in many cases, raised), we are aiming for a more modest 60% within the same time frame. The Japanese, meanwhile, achieved 80% back in 1991. We obviously still have a lot of catching up to do.
We need a framework within which we can catch up on our main competitors and eventually get ahead of them. This is precisely the purpose of national targets. They provide a basis for setting priorities and focusing on the key areas for improvement. And they provide clear measurable goals against which we can assess our performance.
The national targets for education and training - recently revised to take us up to the year 2000 - are challenging but achievable goals for raising the skills and qualifications of all people in the UK.
The original targets - first proposed by the CBI in 1989 and endorsed by government in 1991 - were certainly seen as challenging at the time. Despite substantial progress, however, they were not set high enough to ensure that the UK could match the achievements of its international competitors. That is why over 8,000 consultation papers were sent last year - on request - to employers, education and training providers, local authorities and trade unions by the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets (NACETT), the organisation that monitors progress towards the national targets.
This major consultation exercise not only updated the existing targets, it was also responsible for two new targets: one in core skills, and one for achievement at graduate or management level.
Employers in particular demanded a target for the kinds of qualities they look for when recruiting. These include: the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to work with others, functional numeracy, and familiarity with information technology - skills that many young people today seem to lack. Yet they are the key to building a skilled and adaptable workforce for the future.
I believe strongly that these core skills should become an integral part of all education and training programmes at all levels.
The consultation exercise also called for a new target for achievement of higher-level or management skills. There is substantial evidence of a demand for higher-level technical, professional and managerial qualifications, particularly among businesses engaged in international markets. Future employment trends show a continued growth for people with qualifications at this level. Yet the evidence shows that UK managers are far less likely to have qualifications at these levels than their counterparts in most of our main competitor countries.
What needs to happen now? With the framework in place, how can we actually go on to achieve a skilled and competitive workforce for the 21st century?
Government has played a substantial role by endorsing the national targets and establishing NACETT to monitor progress and make recommendations on achievement. But it is not up to government alone to achieve these targets. It is the responsibility of everyone involved in education and training. We all need to 'own' and implement our national targets at a local level.
Trade associations and industry training organisations should also play a part by taking a lead in developing sector target initiatives, looking at competitive and international benchmarking and making an assessment of the sorts of skills that will be needed in the foreseeable future.
To return to the opening quotation from Howard Davies, it is up to all of us - particularly those of us in business - to ensure that 'competitiveness' does not remain a cliche. It is the job of managers to ensure that their own businesses remain competitive. The national targets provide a benchmark against which business performance in training and developing a highly skilled workforce for the future can be assessed.