National Economic Forum: March 2022

Programme and discussion papers from the National Economic Forum on March 2022.

Hosts: Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training

Facilitators: Lynne Cadenhead, Chair, Women’s Enterprise Scotland

Scribe: Richard Dryburgh, Scottish Government

Discussion group overview

A skilled population is fundamental to business productivity and economic prosperity. It is particularly imperative as we seek to transition to net zero, respond to the impact of the digital revolution and demographic challenges through developing approaches to lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling to ensure that employers have the supply of skills they need.

To deliver this we must ensure that people have the skills they need at every stage of life to have rewarding careers and meet the demands of an ever-changing economy and society, and that employers invest in the skilled employees they need to grow their businesses.

The purpose of this discussion is to explore the three skills programmes outlined in NSET and how all partners across the education and skills system – public, private, third sector and individuals themselves - can be galvanised to play their role in addressing Scotland’s future skills challenge.


NSET sets out 10 actions across three programmes of activity targeted towards delivering a skilled population in Scotland that is able to respond to the needs of the economy and its future direction.

Project 11: adapt the education and skills system to make it more agile and responsive to our economic needs and ambitions

Key actions include:

  • develop proposals for a national digital academy to open up access to a wide array of subjects to a wider array of learners
  • deliver the forthcoming national strategy on adult learning that will ensure that community learning is more consistent and comprehensive
  • deliver key actions from the Scottish Funding Council Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability
  • implement the next phase of the Green Jobs Workforce Academy and launch a new skills guarantee for workers in carbon intensive industries

Project 12: support and incentivise people, and their employers, to invest in skills and training throughout their working lives

Key actions include:

  • implement a lifetime upskilling and retraining offer that is more straightforward for people and business to access and benefit from
  • target more skills investment and support to working age people in poverty or at risk of moving into poverty
  • develop a new Skills Pact to underpin our commitment to strong partnership working with both employers and unions

Project 13: expand Scotland’s available talent pool, at all skills levels, to give employers the skills pipeline they need to take advantage of opportunities

Key actions include:

  • implement a focussed Talent Attraction programme to attract key skills and talent from the rest of the UK
  • progress the actions from Scotland’s Population Strategy to help address rural and island population challenges and sectoral skills shortages in the labour market
  • systemically address Scotland’s labour market inactivity challenges

As outlined in NSET, much work is already underway to deliver against these programmes.

Our colleges, universities and smaller, specialist institutions teach and train around half a million people every year, providing a pipeline of skilled people across technical, vocational and academic disciplines. 

We have also taken steps to understand what more can be done to improve this existing offer. This includes our response to the Scottish Funding Council Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability, Scotland's Population Strategy, the Young Person's Guarantee and the Future Skills Action Plan, which is delivering a strong platform of work based learning, including the further development of our approach to apprenticeships and adult upskilling and reskilling.

A considerable programme of reform is taking place across Scotland's schools, including the implementation of the OECD recommendations through Professor Ken Muir's consultation and Professor Louise Hayward's review of qualifications. We will also build on the recent Careers Service Review to ensure that individuals considering their career choices at any stage of their lives can access the best information and advice.

We are working with partners to address inequalities in education and training. This includes tackling the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses and careers, to ensure that Scotland's STEM sectors are diverse, equal and prosperous. Similar initiatives are addressing the gender gap within Scottish agriculture. Furthermore, we want to review and adapt Scotland’s apprenticeship system so that it is available for start-ups and early scale-ups to use; is embedding entrepreneurial learning into the system; and is increasing focus on providing opportunities for under-represented groups and on specific skills, such as digital.

A key focus of skills provision is the implementation of the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan. This includes the Green Jobs Workforce Academy that was launched in 2021, and the development of a new industry facing Green Jobs Skills Hub to gather and cascade information on skills shortages and opportunities throughout the labour market, enhancing intelligence and promoting more effective responses. The current review of learning in land-based and aquaculture sectors aims to attract more people into these sectors, linking with the existing work of the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland and the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan.

While many of the actions in NSET are focused on areas where the government and the public sector will take a leading role, there are a number of specific actions that require Government to work together with partners, including employers, trade unions and the third sector, to develop solutions or to co-invest to deliver.

These are;

  • implement the next phase of the Green Jobs Workforce Academy and launch a new skills guarantee for workers in carbon intensive industries, providing career guidance and training opportunities, enabling people to seek employment in other sectors
  • develop a new Skills Pact to underpin our commitment to strong partnership working with both employers and unions. The Pact will focus on action we can take together to improve investment in skills and training and ensure provision better meets the needs of employers and employees. As part of this, we will work collaboratively with employers and unions to explore how we can increase employer investment in upskilling and retraining
  • implement a focused Talent Attraction programme to attract key skills and talent from the rest of the UK. This will align with Scotland's identified key sector strengths and new market and cluster building opportunities, and provide a joined-up “landing zone” for targeted employees and their families supported through our commitment to create a Migration Service for Scotland. We will work closely with industry partners and the recruitment sector to leverage best available data and ensure most effective targeting
  • systemically address Scotland's labour market inactivity challenges. Assess trends within different labour market inactive groups and understand what steps can be taken to bring more individuals into the labour market – including through the use of childcare and transport provision, part-time/flexible working, support for employees with disabilities, and business start-up and work from home opportunities. This is inextricably linked to reducing child poverty, including the approach of pathfinders to test how to ensure holistic support enables parents to enter, sustain and progress in work

In terms of delivery, NSET marks a shift in our approach and it is this ruthless focus on delivery that will unlock economic transformation and drive economic opportunities across Scotland.

Suggested discussion questions

  • what action is needed to encourage or incentivise increased employer investment in upskilling and retraining of the workforce?
  • are there barriers to employers playing a full role in shaping and informing the education and skills system to ensure that is responsive to the needs of the wider economy? Is there anything that government or other partners could do to overcome these barriers?
  • are there leadership, capability and capacity constraints within employers’ existing operations that inhibit effective investment in upskilling and reskilling of the workforce?
  • what positive examples are there of collaborative working between employers and parts of the education and skills system that could be learned from and scaled 


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