Plans for the new commission come at an opportune time for Mr Watkins as he is calling for a change to the compulsory education system in Wales to give apprenticeships parity of esteem with university degrees to meet the needs of employers.
He maintains that the most talented young people are encouraged to aspire to attend university rather than to consider apprenticeships in sectors, such as hospitality, where there is a desperate need for skilled employees.
“The Commission for Tertiary Education and Research will be in a much better position to respond to national and regional learning priorities based on evidence to fit the actual needs of the economy,” said Mr Watkins. “Commissioning learning, whatever that might be, cannot continue to be a free for all.
“We have to realise that we live on an island and there is no longer freedom of movement of people following Brexit, which should not come as a surprise to any of us. How are we going to fill job vacancies and fill skills gaps?
“There is a high percentage of our talented young people that leaves the area at the age of 18 for higher education rather than staying to develop higher level skills through apprenticeships. Many of these young people never return to employment within the region and this must change.”
Last week, Mr Watkins addressed more than 100 delegates at the Mid Wales Tourism and Hospitality Conference, organised by MWT Cymru at the Metropole Hotel and Spa, Llandrindod Wells, where he spoke about the recruitment crisis facing the hospitality industry following Brexit and the pandemic.
He asked all delegates to stand up and remain standing if they currently employ or have in the past employed an apprentice. Only six delegates remained standing!
He stressed that apprenticeships in Wales are open to people aged from 16 to 65, including those already employed in businesses.
Significant investment in Powys and Ceredigion planned over the next decade had the potential to be a regional economic “gamechanger”, with projects likely to impact positively on the visitor economy which would require a highly skilled workforce.
“Changing the compulsory education system is not likely to win votes but meeting the needs of our regional economy is far more important, in my opinion, to the region than votes,” he added.
“Never in my working life have I experienced the need to reduce the operational hours of a business not because of the limited number of customers but the lack of human resources available to deliver the quality of service expected by the business and its customers. For the past seven months in Mid Wales, this has been a regular picture.”
He urged businesses to put pressure on politicians at all levels to challenge the compulsory education system and to develop innovative ways of engaging with primary and secondary schools to make children aware of exciting career opportunities within the hospitality and tourism sector.
“Let’s see governing bodies, school leaders, teachers and career guidance giving the same amount of support to students to complete an application for an apprenticeship opportunity as they currently do for the completion of a UCAS form,” he said.
He also challenged employers to create apprenticeship opportunities at the same time as students are considering their school options.
He is concerned how much longer businesses can continue to operate with a staff shortage before they become unsustainable, with the consequent impact on visitor experience. “We need to be continually raising the quality and increasing the offer, not reducing it,” he said.
He revealed that Cambrian Training Company has a minimum of £1.8 million available annually for the next five to seven years to deliver apprenticeships within Powys and Ceredigion.
He pledged to secure additional funding for the tourism – the “most economically important” sector in Mid Wales - if there is demand from businesses to make the Apprenticeship Programme one of the solutions to their skills and staffing crisis.
“Our sector cannot take advantage of the technological advances of automation,” he added. “To be at our best, we need human interaction and that requires higher level skilled individuals and teams. That does not in itself mean higher education.”
One hospitality business already benefitting from the Apprenticeship Programme, having already signed up 13 apprentices, aged from 17 to mid-40s, is Lake Vyrnwy Hotel at Llanwddyn.
Operations director Anthony Rosser said: “I don’t understand why more tourism and hospitality businesses don’t employ apprentices. It’s a wonderful opportunity for employees to receive structured training, very beneficial for recruitment, staff retention and progression, helps to drive up standards within your business and is easy to organise and administer.”
Arwyn Watkins, OBE - time to change the compulsory education system.