End of the road for TECs?

Training and Enterprise Councils do not have many friends. Indeed their biggest champions - perhaps their only ones - were Ministers in the last Government.

Now TECs are under the microscope. Ministers in the new Government want to know the answer to a commonly asked question: just what are TECs for? The Government's review of TECs has completed its first main phase. So, during October, officials and Ministers will be mulling over responses to their consultation document.

So what's the answer? To their credit, the Conservatives did have a big idea once. Sir Norman Fowler's 1988 vision for TECs called on business leaders to deliver a "skills revolution" and inject a dynamism into training.

They were given the national programmes for young people and unemployed adults too. Government hoped that business-led dynamism would carry over into the "welfare" programmes and that TECs would create a seamldss blend of training in which you could scarcely differentiate between employee, school leaver or claimant.

But TECs were optimistically conceived in a labour market boom and then gloomily implemented in a recession. And, unlike their Scottish counterparts, TECs were asked to develop a role in economic and community regeneration without any clear integration of their activities into the planning and economic development framework of their local economies.

Despite this, the Conservatives carried on giving TECs a signal that they should be the pre-eminent organisations promoting competitiveness, skills, educational attainment and local regeneration - even though TECs were plainly not much good at doing it. Responding to this signal, but lacking the necessary diplomatic skills or competence to be pre-eminent, many TECs got off to a bad start by alienating the voluntary sector, other business organisations, civic leaders and educational institutions. And they have never recovered.

The 1990s recession meant that employers invested even less in training their workforces and TECs found they had no levers to pull, or funds to spend, in order to boost employee training. Having been given the YT and TfW budgets to administer, TECs abandoned their skills focus and concentrated on trying to tackle unemployment. In the case of YT, they also effectively became the benefits agency for unemployed 16 and 17 year olds as they struggled - and failed - to meet the YT Guarantee which represented the only legitimate source of income for jobless school leavers.

This awkward history has resulted in a fundamental and widespread confusion about the role that TECs actually play - a confusion that is complicated by their inconsistent performance. TECs have been given a clumsy mixture of functions which are dominated by the management and funding of training for unemployed adults and school leavers within rigid, nationally defined rules. They are expected to strategically drive forward the skills base of employees whilst also meeting a range of other business support needs.

Are TECs fit for purpose organisations? Or are they just trying to do too much and doing most of it rather poorly? And where do they fit into the new framework of Regional Development Agencies and the the many New Deal programmes which are eclipsing most TECs' unemployment activity. And what about the newly envigorated Employment Service?

We think TECs should get back to the 1998 vision and concentrate on what they ought to do best. With a bit more transparency and public accountability, TECs should develop a stronger employer-led identity and establish stronger connections to other business leadership bodies. They should adopt a clearer focus on developing the skills of the employed workforce and allied business services, meeting needs that are identified strategically at a regional and sub-regional level by RDAs. In this light, the merger of TECs with Chambers of Commerce and Business Links seems an obvious development and should be encouraged.

Then, the Employment Service should assume greater responsibility for the funding and contracting of training and employment programmes for those disadvantaged in the labour market. It should closely integrate these programmes with the New Deal and its other services, in particular the job broking functions.

However, let's not be too starry-eyed about the ES. The culture change which has transformed the agency is still skin deep and will take years until the Tories' poisonous culture is washed out of the system. And, as we show in this issue, the effort of getting New Deal right has distracted the ES from its other core activities. Witness the failure last year to meet its job placement targets for the mainstream and long term unemployed. And reflect on the fact that these undershoots are dramatically worsening as managers take their eye off one ball to concentrate on another.