National Economic Forum: March 2022

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

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

Facilitator: Karen Watt, CEO, Scottish Funding Council

Scribe: Julie Bilotti, Skills Delivery Team, Skills Division, Scottish Government


There was a wide ranging discussion between employers, sector representatives and those delivering skills provision across Scotland. Key elements of the discussion included:-

  • the need for the skills system to offer greater support for employers in particular taking advantage of digital platforms where possible
  • ensuring the current skills system is able to be more responsive, more quickly to the changing and varied demands of businesses of all sizes and across all sectors
  • the need for more support for small businesses who are enthusiastic about upskilling and retraining their workforce but need support to do so
  • important that digital skills are not seen as a separate sector – they are essential skills across all sectors
  • the need for a more streamlined accreditation process was highlighted by the FE sector and employer representatives
  • the need to be clear that the Scottish Government’s definition of ‘skilled’ includes the whole workforce, regardless of the job they do. The offer must be inclusive
  • STEM skills are key to the economy and require more emphasis in secondary education
  • Scotland should teach Leadership as a skillset at all levels – strong leadership skills across the workforce are important

Introduction and background

Jamie Hepburn opened the discussion by highlighting the importance of a skilled workforce to achieving the ambition set out in the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET). For him the key question for the discussion was: how do we ensure the population of Scotland has the skills they need now and will need in the future to thrive individually but also support economic growth? In addition to economic recovery from Covid and EU exit, we must achieve a just transition to net zero, and address the challenges of ongoing demographic change, technological advance and automation.

After introducing herself, Karen Watt (KW) highlighted the over £2bn already invested in further and higher education in Scotland and hoped that the session could be a discussion that helped shape how we take forward the skills elements of NSET building on this.

Topics discussed:

Support for employers

Ideas for improving support for employers as well as how the skills system is able to respond quickly and offer a bespoke training offer were highlighted.

Concerns were raised that the lack of a digitised accreditation system meant that employers were not always sure the qualification certificates being presented were still current or indeed genuine. Some are repeating essential training like Health and Safety just to be sure. Colleges also face an accreditation challenge with some dealing with over 50 accreditation bodies. So, delegates suggested the system of providing evidence and accreditation could be more efficient, and could better recognise prior learning in different settings.

There was a view that smaller businesses without HR teams were keen to support and train their workforce but there is little available to help them access the workforce they need and be supported to recruit and train workers of all ages or to engage in apprenticeships.

There was a view that free-lancers and sole traders were not represented in NSET discussions but they are key in some sectors. However, often these types of businesses don’t access apprenticeships as they don’t know they are there.

KW highlighted the opportunity for colleges, universities and employers to co-design courses and curriculum developments so that pedagogy links to business needs.

The need for an enduring system for individuals and business was highlighted that would particularly support small business. We need to understand what a meaningful incentive is for employers to upskill and retrain their workforce.

Support for learners from school and throughout their working lives

A number of delegates agreed the need for young people to understand the opportunities available to them in terms of training and to ensure that at school they understand that specific courses and qualifications can lead to particular jobs or help position them for future changes in the job market. 

It’s particularly important to highlight opportunities across Scotland – not just in the areas where young people grow up (e.g highlighting rural job opportunities in growth sectors such as forestry to young people in cities/the central belt).

Changing the skills system - ‘new, bright, shiny’, or adapt and change the system and structures we have

There was concern that government might favour ‘new, bright, shiny’ initiatives and new infrastructure rather than work to adapt the skills system we have. Examples of how FE and HE institutions were able to respond at pace to differing training needs of employers were highlighted and there was agreement that often shorter courses which were specific to the needs of companies, worked well for both employer and learner. 

Funding in recent years for higher education institutions to deliver upskilling had resulted in the delivery of micro-credentials but there is work to be done to fully understand the impact of this new provision.

A view was set out that SG should do more to scale up what works. 

Equality/ inclusivity

The risk of excluding those with ‘low skills’ was highlighted and delegates were clear that all jobs and sectors should be part of the work to achieve a skilled workforce. The skills system is for everyone.

There remains underrepresentation of women in some sectors, particularly STEM and this continues to need to be addressed.

There was a view that we need a workforce and population where everyone is valued for the work they do and that we need to ensure a place for everyone – older workers, disabled people, ex-offenders etc.

Key training/ learning themes

A number of specific sectors and types of learning were highlighted in the discussion:

  • STEM – there was disappointment that STEM did not feature in the strategy as it is felt to be critical to all jobs. Concern was raised that young people in school are able to opt out of STEM subjects in second year of secondary
  • digital – digital skills were felt to be critical across all sectors and shouldn’t be seen as one sector of its own
  • climate – there was a view from the HE sector that there was work to be done quickly to address the opportunities around climate change
  • leadership – felt to be important at all levels of the workforce

Closing comments

In his closing comments Jamie Hepburn thanked everyone for their input and felt the short discussion had covered a lot of ground. He referenced the commitment in NSET to a Skills Pact which will underpin our commitment to partnership working with employers and unions as we take forward the other commitments in NSET.

From the discussion he wanted to cover three areas:

  • the question about what is meant by a skilled workforce – he wanted to be clear this means a working population with the knowledge and understanding for the jobs available in the economy, now and in the future. He does not believe it is appropriate to use the term ‘low skilled’. Our plans are for the whole workforce
  • on ‘new. bright, shiny’ – to an extent we may seek to try new approaches to areas where we feel change is needed. But he fully accepted the point that was made and agreed that where things are working, we should seek to scale them up. It will be important to consider how changes impact the existing system
  • he would have liked to spend more time on the role of employers in skills delivery. Clearly there is a role for Government but he felt that action is needed by employers to halt the decline in employer investment in training we have seen in recent years. It’s important that workers have the time and space to learn and we need to do more work to understand how much employers are willing to invest


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