Public Services Management: Training as a private enterprise: Paul Gosling reports on how tensions between helping the long-term unemployed and stimulating business are beginning to ease

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The Independent Online
TRAINING the long-term unemployed and promoting an enterprise culture are not necessarily activities that sit together comfortably. It was only the accident of history that both responsibilities lay with the Department of Employment when Training and Enterprise Councils (Tecs) were announced in December 1988 that caused them to be linked together, says Nigel Meager, senior research fellow at the Institute of Manpower Studies at Sussex University which has conducted research on, and for, Tecs. It was, he says, always difficult to see the policy logic that linked training with enterprise.

'It is true to say that a large number of senior private sector people were enticed into Tecs in 1989/90 on the basis of enterprise rather than training,' says Mr Meager. 'They wanted to encourage small business start-ups and create a fertile economic infrastructure rather than run YTS (Youth Training Scheme) and ET (Employment Training), as it then was. Then they got in and found that 70, 80, 90 per cent of the budgets were tied into training programmes, with the political imperative of taking people off the unemployment register. There has always been a terrific tension.'

Mr Meager sees things getting better. 'New programmes like the Investors in People training for unemployed are rather closer to the vision of what these directors had in mind when they came into the business. At the Tec conference at the beginning of July they delivered a message that David Hunt (Secretary of State for Employment) has taken to heart. The climate may now be changing.'

The Tecs themselves, at least in public, say it is more a matter of emphasis than of conflict. Diana McMahon, chief executive of Bedfordshire Tec, says: 'What we are saying is that it is not either/or, but that the balance needs to be right. My directors are keen on more resources for the enterprise element. We never believed that they should be apart, but they need to be so integrated that you can't see the joins.'

Olivia Grant, chief executive of Tyneside Tec, says that training programmes and enterprise initiatives can work together provided that Tecs are given more freedom. 'It's important that Tecs have the flexibility to use programmes creatively so that the long-term unemployed are able to compete alongside those more recently unemployed, and that contributes to training and enterprise as well as upskilling. There is no philosophical tension between the activities, only tension if you are inhibited from using the situation to help everybody and substantially help the long-term unemployed.'

Tecs are required to perform another balance: that between helping larger companies and small businesses. Both Bedfordshire and Tyneside Tecs see the small firms sector as supplying the biggest employment growth potential, and therefore warranting the greatest support. This view is shared by Professor James Curran of Kingston University, who recently submitted a report on Tecs and small businesses to the House of Commons Social Science and Policy Group.

Professor Curran says that in many areas small firms are not receiving the support they need. Much of the problem, he says, lies with the expectation that businesses will contact Tecs, when they are too busy surviving. He believes that small firms themselves are also often to blame. 'We found that small businesses and employees were very complacent about the needs for training. It made it doubly difficult to reach small firms. Tecs are clearly judged on performance, and medium and large firms are easier to hit, can get a lot of training done, and will be more receptive anyway. This is particularly the case where larger companies have direct contact with members of the Tec boards. The exception to this is in places like Leicester and Nottingham where there is still a large textile industry, based on small firms, where special schemes can be run, and it is easier to target.'

Many Tecs see the creation of enterprise as a long haul, not only involving managers, which needs to start on the young. 'If you really want an enterprise culture you have to work in schools,' says David Rossington, chief executive of Lincolnshire Tec.

Government reliance on output measures to assess the performance of Tecs worries both outside observers, and some inside the Tecs. Mr Rossington says the strong may benefit at the expense of the weak. 'There is a danger of creaming off. We are very much in favour of going for outputs, but with care, and would like to see more flexibility by the Government to interpret the outputs. The distance travelled is important, rather than just the output.'

The announcement by the Government earlier this month that Tecs will be assessed in league tables has heightened concerns. In particular, say some, the long-term unemployed, people with disabilities, women and ethnic minorities could find their training opportunities cut. A recent report from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) criticised Tecs for what it called 'cramming and creaming', resulting from excessive concentration on performance measures. 'The pressure is on training organisations to select those who can be trained quickly and cheaply, while having to turn away those who need most help,' says Martin Ayton, the NCVO's policy and campaigns officer.

Tecs are responding to the variety of demands placed on them with increasingly innovative schemes. Venture capital funds are being established for new businesses. Waged apprenticeships are being re-established. Skills registers that compare the unemployed with vacancies have been created. Businesses are encouraged to enter new markets through the establishment of specialist centres.

Many new initiatives have been promoted by the Government's pounds 25m Tec Challenge. Some of the winners were able to bring together in one scheme measures to help several target groups.

Avon Tec, one of the winners, was awarded pounds 750,000 to develop a cable fibre optic system, or 'learning network', based in South Bristol, which aims to educate, train and develop enterprise in a deprived area. Beneficiaries should include the long term unemployed, small businesses, single parents and school children.

'South Bristol is an old industrial area, with much of the industry that it is moving into the area moving to the north of the city,' explains Dereth Wood, development manager. 'The area is isolated in transport terms, with traditional manual skills, not in new technology. We looked at an isolated urban area, using the same principles that in the Highlands and Islands they looked at homeworking and isolation.'

A company will be established to assist with teleworking and the provision of business-to-business services. Part of the Avon project will also be to establish a local television channel, which can transmit programmes made by local school children, and which the Tec intends to use to promote community leaders as role models. Ms Wood says: 'The first money will go into a batch of apprentice workers, paid an apprentice wage of pounds 150 a week.'

The Government has not decided whether the Tec Challenge is just a one-off, or whether it will be maintained. The enthusiasm and initiative displayed by Tecs is a formidable argument for retaining the scheme for future years.

(Photograph omitted)