"They say knowledge is power…and skills planning is no exception"

Katie Fox

"I’ve had a number of different roles in economic development throughout my career, but they’ve all had one common thread… a focus on the development and use of labour market evidence.    

So, it’s probably a pretty big understatement to say that I place a great value in the effort to understand more about the skills employers need and aligning the skills system in response.

And the importance of this is reflected within the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland  in “Priority Area A:  Better understand the skills that rural employers need and align provision to support this.” 

So, how do we go about understanding the skills that rural employers need?   

Well, evidence about skills needs can come from two places. We can get this from insight from conversations with employers and other stakeholders in rural regions and sectors, either through direct conversations, survey work or focus groups. But we can also get it from official datasets. 

For me, a great example of the former came earlier in my career from my involvement in the development of the first version Food & Drink Skills Investment Plan back in 2011.  The work involved lots of consultations with employers and it really sparked my interest in the important role that skills play in supporting the wider growth ambitions of businesses in the sector. 

I booked in an hour for each of my meetings, but never managed to come in on time, always gladly staying on to hear more about the critical role of skills within their businesses and some of the barriers they faced in developing these skills.  The meetings took place in a range of different settings from farms to food manufacturing plants and distilleries to bakeries – absolutely fascinating businesses, each adding their own unique take on what skills their business and sector needs.  The added bonus of consulting with Food & Drink businesses meant that the refreshments on offer were second-to-none (perhaps this is the real reason my meetings ran over)! 

So, for me, that piece of work was probably a turning point in recognising the role of the employer voice in helping to shine a light on the skills that employers and sectors require not just to survive but to innovate, to raise productivity, and to grow. 

And, through the implementation of the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland we can demonstrate the ways that, as a partnership, we are listening to what employers have to say about the skills needs that they have. 

One example is the series of Skills Summits held by Lantra between December 2019 and January 2020, the findings of which have now been pulled together in a report called Recruiting for the Future .  The summits brought together lots of people who are involved in the land and sea sector – including businesses, training providers, and learners – at events in Ayrshire, Perth and Inverness with a view to supporting the sector to identify and address skills issues. 

I attended the Ayrshire event on a particularly wet day (even by Ayrshire standards!) but was cheered immensely by the presentations which included a particularly inspirational insight into farming from a young woman doing a Modern Apprenticeship in Agriculture.  Her passion and positivity for careers in land-based sectors was there in spades and really showcased to everyone in the room the life that new talent can introduce into the workplace. 

The Skills Alignment Pilot which is currently taking place in collaboration with partners in the South of Scotland is another example of work underway which supports the implementation of the plan.  The purpose of this work, which is due to finalise later in the summer, is to secure better alignment between the post-school education and skills in the South of Scotland.  And speaking to employers is a crucial stage in this work. 

And without doubt, the employer voice has become even more important in the current climate.  SDS has developed a series of COVID-19 Labour Market Insights  reports which blend official data with insight from employers and stakeholders across Scotland to paint a picture of how the pandemic is affecting regions and sectors across Scotland.  The August Edition contains information about impact on Scotland’s rural regions.   

Other partners in the Implementation Steering Group for the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland have also been working with their networks to understand the impact of COVID-19.  Examples of this include Growbiz who has conducted a survey of around 250 small rural enterprises and colleagues in Scottish Enterprise gathering insight through their network of Rural Leaders.   

The use of official data is another tool that we have to help us understand what skills employers need. 

Whilst employer consultation is incredibly important, the critical role of data should not be underestimated here either in helping policy makers to understand demand for skills, supply of labour and skills mismatches.

One of the ways we use data to strengthen our understanding of skills in rural areas is through the evidence base which underpins SDS’ Regional Skills Assessments (RSAs).  The RSAs bring together a range of published datasets along with forecasts to paint a picture of demand for skills in different regions across Scotland.  And this year for the first year, there will be an RSA which specifically covers rural Scotland – this will be a fantastic resource. 

Behind the RSA reports sit a wealth of data which is contained in SDS’ Data Matrix. The data matrix contains a rich source of quantitative information, with over 80 different economic and labour market indicators which are presented in a visual and easy-to-navigate way.  And having the function to view the data at a rural level is a hugely helpful addition.  Allowing us to compare and contrast economic and labour market conditions with other parts of Scotland. 

So, this has really just been a taster of some of the ways in which we are implementing the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland through the Implementation Steering Group.  The scale of economic (and by extension, the labour market) disruption is arguably greater than anything we’ve seen before so the role of research, evidence and intelligence will continue to have a critical role in understanding the needs of employers across Scotland."