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Sylvia Perrins

Sylvia Perrins has a daunting task in front of her. In addition to her responsibilities to increase the quality of training available for new recruits for financial services and promote the opportunities available in the industry, the new chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Financial Services is also looking to tackle the widespread ignorance about finance in the wider population.

The NSAFS is part of the Government’s National Skills Academy initiative, which aims to provide specialised training and education to specific industries.

Each academy is responsible for overseeing the development of specialised training for its specific industry, working with employers and schools and colleges to ensure that new recruits have the education and skills they need.

There are currently 11 skills academies up and running and a further five are in the planning stage. But the financial services academy was one of the first three unveiled in October 2006. Perrins joined the NSAFS in January 2007 as operations director, and the academy official opened for business in May 2007.

In April Perrins was promoted to chief executive and she says the new role means she will now take a much broader view of the organisation and of the work it does, rather then focus on the day to day practicalities.

Part of the new role is to raise the profile of the academy and its work, not only with its existing partners but throughout the industry. “The remit for me is to make sure we get the academy’s name known and understood in the financial services sector.”

This understanding is important not just for the success of the academy but also for potential employers in the industry. Perrins says that like all skills academies, employers’ needs are at the heart of what the academy is trying to do. To ensure employers interests are central to what the academy does the NSAFS has a national employer board and several regional employer boards that help shape the training offered by the academy.

Perrins says her background before she joined the NSAFS also helps to strike the right balance between industry and education.

Perrins is an economics graduate from the London School of Economics and spent eight years with BP after joining it on its graduate programme. She then went into teaching, lecturing on business, finance, management and accountancy before moving into management.

She says: “Having that commercial side from the early parts of my career and then moving into the education it is the ideal blend to be able to marry up what the employer needs from training and development and understanding the education process and how you should be able to develop people to get the most from them.”

While the college is dedicated to providing specialist training for financial services, Perrins says the skills that employers most want the college to teach its students are general skills such as numeracy and softer people skills.

“What they want are young people, or any new entrants, with the right attitudes and behaviours to be able to work positively. In terms of how people communicate effectively, to be able to work as a team, to be able to problem solve, business report writing, they are the sorts of issues that employers feed back to us ad say we need those skills, good customer service skills.”

So far the NSAFS has overseen the training of around 4,500 people, with a lot of its attention focussed on apprenticeships. Many employers are keen to find a new source of recruits into the industry but she says many are unaware of the apprenticeship programme.

Through government funding, they offer a mix of professional qualifications, through CII, SII or ifs School of Finance, and softer skills.

“As a package, the apprenticeship tries to wrap around all the different elements and when employers understand that they can see it is a training programme that exactly meets what their needs are.”

The NSAFS obviously wants to increase that number of qualified entrants to the business but says the current economic situation means that in the short term many employers will not be recruiting many new staff. Instead it is focusing some of its attention, in the short term at least, to training for existing staff.

As employers try and cut costs, it may be difficult to offer pay increase and other benefits but she says training could offer a way to reward employees at the same time as boosting productivity for an employer.

“That is something an employer can look at in these difficult times, when it is not as easy to give pay awards, bonuses, etc. Having a good training programme which is cost-effective is something that buys loyalty.”

The downturn has, in fact, created opportunities for the academy.

“We have knowledge of how to access public funding to support some of the training. In that sense, we have been able to show how employers how they can continue to train and develop staff and to access public money to reduce the cost. Because quite clearly costs are under enormous pressure and if we can offer something to help support that then this has created opportunities for us.”

In the longer term, Perrins says the academy will be trying to provide a pipeline of new talent for the industry to meet its requirements for growth.

To do this, she says they need to get the message out to careers advisers in schools and colleges as many may not know or understand the industry very well.

The academy will also be trying to do its part to raise people’s awareness and understanding of personal finance in general.

In addition to the vocational training it provides, the NSAFS is also starting to provide general financial education through schools and colleges. In a partnership with the FSA the financial capability project aims to teach practical money management skills to school children, students, unemployed, new parents or new employees. The academy’s first Money Week, held in March, reached 12,000 students through 30 colleges.

Perrins says: “One of the things that came out of that was they quite like this thing called money and what opportunities it might have for careers.”

She says this is going to be a growing area for the academy and says, as a knock- on effect, a better understanding of money could make for a better, less confusing industry.

“If we had better informed consumers, then that makes for a better industry.”

Born: Essex, 1954

Lives: South-east London

Education: BSc economics, London School of Economics, MBA, Open University, associate chartered management accountant, trained teacher

Career: 2009-present: chief executive, National Skills Academy for Financial Services; 2007-09: national director, National Skills Academy for Financial Services; 2003-07: director of business development and planning, Westminster Kingsway College, London; 2001-03: director of strategy and innovation, Westminster Kingsway College, London; 1997-2001: assistant principal, finance and information systems, Orpington College, Kent; Finance and business analyst, BP

Likes: Meeting people, particularly people who have been successful themselves and want to give something back to others, sport, cycling and golf

Dislikes: Dishonesty

Drives: Much more of a cyclist, a 10 or 11-year-old VW Polo

Book: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Film: The Godfather

Album: Imagine by John Lennon

Career ambition: I feel that I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do.

Lifetime ambition: I’d like to improve my golf handicap

If I wasn’t doing this I would be…I’d like to do a PhD on research into financial education. And improve my golf.

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