Before taking his current job, Mark Haysom worked for 30 years in newspapers, eventually running the national titles for Trinity Mirror. There, amid crossing swords with the then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan and launching a suicidal price war against Rupert Murdoch, he learnt something shocking.
"There are a number of people in national newspapers who go their whole career without a moment of training," he reveals. So it is rather ironic that after being the victim of "regime change" when Sly Bailey became chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Haysom ended up running the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).
It is tempting to say that the LSC is the biggest government body you've never heard of. Employing more than 4,000 people and with an annual budget of nearly £9bn, it is responsible for the education and training of hundreds of thousands of people. It is in charge of secondary education for the over-16s, runs the Apprenticeships initiative, a hobby horse of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and is central to the Prime Minister's skills initiative.
After last week's report into reforming education by the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, the LSC has been thrust into the eye of a massively important debate on vocational training for kids as young as 14.
Tomlinson's call for more vocational qualifications has been attacked in some quarters, but Haysom is all in favour. The LSC came out immediately in support of Tomlinson's reforms, and Haysom adds: "The challenge is not just getting the framework for qualifications right but getting the infrastructure right to deliver the skills needed." Haysom says he expects to be consulted as the Department for Education and Skills turns Tomlinson into policy, and the LSC will work with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and local education authorities to bring in any changes.
If the LSC is going to have a big impact on the debate and implementing Tomlinson, then it should be in a better state to do it than when Haysom arrived a year ago. The body was created in 2001 by bringing together the Further Education Funding Council with all the local Training and Enterprise Councils up and down the country. "It wasn't exactly a marriage made in heaven," Haysom reflects, ruefully.
The unwieldy organisation employed 5,000 people, had 47 local offices, seven national officers and an astonishing 750 non-executive directors on various boards. It also funded every sixth form and sixth form college in the UK.
"We were set up to change the world in every community in the nine regions of England, but we were unable to get the message through, which caused massive frustration for ministers, stakeholders and employees," says Haysom. Immediate action was essential. "I wanted to ensure the LSC was around long enough to make a difference."
He set about cutting though the undergrowth. Within three months he had appointed regional directors to replace the national officers and cut 200 posts at the head office in Coventry. Another 600 job losses have followed.
Haysom has also written a mission statement for the organisation based on four core values - partnership, expertise, ambition and urgency. "What we are about is leadership - leadership of change," he says.
While many might roll their eyes at all this management consultant speak, Haysom is actually trying to get an important message through. That is that the LSC should be there to give people the tools to train the workforce of tomorrow - and this means that it has to be accessible and have an impact without getting bogged down in bureaucracy. As Haysom says: "It's amazing to see how many people sit around with their fingers in the pie wanting to get a piece."
On apprenticeships, the LSC has been running adverts on TV, in the papers and on posters, trying to get companies to sign up to take young people who are leaving school with few academic qualifications. "We have a huge demand to do apprenticeships but do not have enough employers," Haysom admits.
It all seems a rather strange thing for Haysom to be doing, given his background. He started his career as a junior reporter on the Grimsby News in 1977, working on various papers before moving into management eight years later when he was at the South London Guardian, then owned by Reed International. He was headed-hunted by Thomson Regional, the largest local newspaper publisher in the UK before it was sold to Trinity in 1997. When Trinity merged with Mirror Group two years later, he was put in charge of the Mirror's Birmingham titles.
In his first week, he uncovered a massive circulation scandal, where the three main papers had been manipulating their sales figures. Having cleaned this up, at a cost to the group of £20m, he was moved to run its national titles - the Daily and Sunday Mirror and Sunday People.
"When I started in Grimsby, I had a dream of moving into national newspapers, but not in the way it ended up," Haysom smiles.
He arrived just after the City Slickers scandal and had left before the fake abuse pictures of Iraqi prisoners that lost Piers Morgan his job. But he was in charge for another controversial episode, the expensive and unsuccessful price war against The Sun. "The price war followed a particular strategy which I really don't want to go into," he says, before muttering: "Bloody consultants."
Haysom was always close to Philip Graf, who was replaced as chief executive of Trinity Mirror by Sly Bailey in 2003. "A new chief executive always picks his - or her - team," Haysom reflects. Soon he was out of a job.
The LSC post came up after he answered an advertisement in a national newspaper. "I had done everything I had always dreamt of in my career, and more, and I wanted to make a contribution," he says, adding: "However, I thought it might be a little later in life."
Six interviews - including one with a psychologist - later, and the job was his. Some former colleagues have expressed surprise at his appointment. When he was at Trinity Mirror, Haysom gained a reputation for being bossy and short-tempered. Asked about this, he thinks for a while before saying: "I'm very directional and very focused. I am intolerant of people who lack clarity and intolerant of people who fudge issues.
"The public sector has an awful lot of fudge, an awful lot of ducking the difficult decisions, a lot of dragging feet. A bit of intolerance can be an advantage."
Born: 17 August 1953
Education: Leicester University; Richmond College, Sheffield
1977: Grimsby News, trainee
1986: Reed International, newspaper manager
1993: Thomson Regional Newspapers, managing director (Wales)
1997: Trinity Holdings, director
1999: Trinity Mirror, director of national newspapers
2003: Learning and Skills Council, chief executiveReuse content