Fighting job discrimination

Even in rural England, Training and Enterprise Councils can't afford to be complacent about equal opportunities, says Ken Welsby
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WHERE DO you encounter racial discrimination in training and at work? Most people will probably think first of the inner cities - areas such as Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side.

But how about Lincolnshire? The number of people from ethnic minorities in the county is small and widely dispersed - and this can lead to complacency:

"It's easy to say that because the numbers are small, race is not a problem - and conclude that there are no equal opportunities to be addressed," says David Rossington, chief executive of Lincolnshire Training and Enterprise Council (TEC). "But the problems do exist - and we have to tackle them."

It's not just an issue for Lincolnshire - and not just an issue of race relations. All training and enterprise councils have a duty to promote equal opportunities regardless of race, gender or disability. And while the spotlight of publicity falls most often on racial discrimination, the other two areas are just as important.

The subject comes under the spotlight on Tuesday, at an equal opportunities conference organised by the TEC National Council and supported by the Independent and The Independent on Sunday.

TECs are at the forefront of promoting and providing new initiatives in training and in many parts of the country they also play a key role in economic development and regeneration.

In this, they are measured against a national standard which states that they must not simply provide equal access to training programmes but must work towards equality of outcome.

In other words, it's not good enough just to ensure that people from minority groups, women, or disabled people can get places on training courses - the TEC also has to work hard to ensure that they have the same opportunity to succeed: to complete the course, gain the qualification and find a job.

If there is a gap between equality of access and equality of outcome, the TECs have to measure it - and spell out what steps they are taking to close it.

The government's aim is for "full equality" in all state-funded TEC programmes by April 2000, and one of those taking part in the discussions at Tuesday's conference will be Margaret Hodge, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Employment and Equal Opportunities.

The TECs are happy to take the lead, but they are anxious to work with other organisations from central and local government and the voluntary sector in promoting equal opportunities.

"TECs alone can't influence the world out there to be less discriminatory," says Mary Lord, chief executive of the national council. "They need to be up-front and concerted in their action and to do that they need the support of others."

Managers of individual TECs agree. Martin Ayton, equalities policy manager for North London, highlights the Modern Apprenticeship programme - the flagship of the training programmes - which has met with a varied response among different ethnic minority groups in different areas.

In North London, 21.5 per cent of the people on Modern Apprenticeships were from ethnic minorities, but across the country as a whole they are under-represented.

Tackling this under-representation is not simply a matter of helping employers to recruit from ethnic minorities. It may also be the result of parental attitudes in some minority groups where full-time further education and study may be more highly regarded than on-the-job training.

"Closing the race equality gap in Modern Apprenticeships is a priority." he says, "but it is not something we alone can ensure. TECs need to improve opportunities in the labour market by working with employers and in wider economic development."

In Gainsborough, for example, the TEC is taking part in a regeneration programme at Park Springs, a large council estate with high unemployment and other social problems. Many employers are reluctant to consider applicants from the area because they are seen as "difficult" or "unreliable".

The TEC's programme is a training project designed to enhance residents' employment prospects, education and skills. The TEC established a training centre on the estate, and in its first year of operation 15 local women achieved a range of National Vocational Qualifications in subjects as varied as computer literacy and IT, first aid, food hygiene, interior decorating, book-keeping and A-level English.

These women are now continuing with a further year of training, including topics such as positive parenting, nutrition, budgeting and managing challenging children. Meanwhile a second group of 15 has joined the programme and has taken part in a detailed training-needs analysis and is now starting to work towards a range of qualifications.

The challenging role of TECs TRAINING AND Enterprise Councils are locally based, publicly funded companies which play a strategic role in local economic development by meeting the "skills needs" of their areas. They work through government- funded training and business support programmes and in partnership with local authorities, voluntary bodies, business organisations and others.

In practice, the work of TECs falls into four categories: undertaking local economic assessments and identifying priorities for development, promoting an enterprise culture and ensuring that businesses have the skills and support they need, raising skill levels by improving education and training, tackling social exclusion and inequality of opportunity.

All TECs have independent, non-executive directors drawn from the areas in which they operate. Most of them are senior managers and directors of local companies, and the others are drawn from other organisations in the local community: voluntary bodies, town halls, trade unions. Apart from their chief executives, directors are unpaid.

There are 72 TECs in England and Wales, of which 14 have merged with local chambers of commerce to form chambers of commerce, training and enterprise. Some have also merged with Business Links - the broadly based local organisations backed by the government which provide a one-stop- shop of information, advice and support to business and industry.