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Big Brother is watching your skills


GraduatesAs more government schemes are introduced to combat the skills gap, is the grass looking greener for this impending crisis? But while no one could accuse the government of resting on its laurels, Matt Henkes wonders if the flurry of new proposals could all turn out to be hogwash?

Few would argue against positive action to up-skill the workforce if the government’s warning about the impending skills crisis in the UK is to be believed. But is the agenda heading in the right direction or simply creating more meaningless red tape for business?

It seems hardly a day goes by without our illustrious leaders launching a new scheme aimed at helping the masses improve their skills or enabling business to take a more active role in training the workforce.

There may be good reason. Construction Skills, the sector skills council (SSC) for construction, became the latest industry watchdog to warn that the number of people in the manual workforce aged under 24 had fallen by 27%. Professional trades such as architecture and engineering were also predicted to lose up to 20% of their manpower to retirement over the next 10 years.

"Employers would not be obliged to pay an employee’s salary whilst they were undertaking their training, or to organise or pay for the training."

Skills minister David Lammy

Up-skilling the workforce has been touted as the employment market saviour, with the issue taking a priority seat at the central cabinet table for the first time ever through the creation of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).

In response to the construction predicament, last week the DIUS secretary of state, John Dehnam, announced a new £300m agreement between the government and employers, which he said would deliver more skilled workers in the construction, hospitality and manufacturing industries. Split between the various SSCs, Denham said the funding would enable them to encourage employers to take up government initiatives such as the Train to Gain scheme, make the skills pledge and offer more apprenticeships.

"In the future, it will no longer be the shortage of jobs but the shortage of skills that will be the biggest barrier to full employment," a DIUS spokesman confidently predicts. "Britain's long-term prosperity depends more than ever on developing the talent and potential of all our people to the full."

Time off for training

The latest in the skills agenda is a draft proposal (PDF file) to allow employees the right to request time off for training. It has already ruffled a few feathers, with business leaders expressing concern about its possible negative effects.

This prompted skills minister David Lammy to clarify that this 'right' would be arranged along the same lines as the current statutory right to request flexible working. "Employers would not be obliged to pay an employee’s salary whilst they were undertaking their training, or to organise or pay for the training," he added. "But we would expect many to choose to do so, recognising the opportunity to invest in their business by investing in the skills of their employees."

This assurance came much to the consternation of the Unite trade union, which called the proposal 'meaningless'.

Access to apprenticeships

In his draft Queen’s speech in May, Gordon Brown said it was unfair and a 'threat to our country's future prosperity' that many qualified young people are still denied access to an apprenticeship. The aim by 2010, he said, was to have 210,000 people starting apprenticeships every year.

A barrier for many people who may otherwise seek further training is often the perceived cost, which prompted another announcement that at the same time, everyone in the UK would be offered their own skills account. This will give people aged 19-25 access to a personalised training 'voucher', worth up to £7,000 to get training up to level three – the equivalent of A levels or an apprenticeship.

"An individual can 'spend' the voucher with an accredited provider of their choice," explains the DIUS. "People can also use their accounts to help access training at work through Train to Gain or an apprenticeship."

However, CIPD skills adviser John McGurk questions whether the infrastructure is there. "The hype has lacked the provision," he says. "We are also concerned apprenticeships will be re-badged to involve any kind of workplace training, which is going to compromise the standard of apprenticeships as a form of vocational education."

The stick approach

Responsibility for the development of 14-19 year olds is to fall to local authorities’ Connexions service. This will ensure their progress is tracked and that they are given help with independent advice and guidance (IAG), perhaps more suitably referred to as finger-wagging.

"We believe it is no longer acceptable for those without the necessary skills to work simply to remain on benefits."

Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

But unemployed people between the ages of 19 and 25 have also become a target in the skills shake-up. By 2009, these people will receive a 'skills screen' and could risk losing benefit entitlements if they don’t address their skills needs.

It has been suggested this new approach represents something of a stick rather than a carrot approach. However, the DIUS is quick to justify this, pointing out that expectations are changing for individuals to acquire the skills they need for work. "As government continues to improve its skills support for both individuals and employers, we believe it is no longer acceptable for those without the necessary skills to work simply to remain on benefits," says a spokesman.

"We're helping people to take control of their skills needs to increase their chances of getting into sustained employment, developing their skills and supporting employers to get the skilled workforce they need."

Take it to your leaders

The raft of announcements have been generally welcomed by business leaders and training experts across the country, with a few reservations. "We’re glad that the government is at last paying attention to the whole range of skills that are required to enable us to compete in a global knowledge economy," says McGurk. "But we want to see more done on training in leadership and management."

He believes managers are key to UK productivity. However, currently 40% of UK managers have a qualification at just level two or below – the level of a 16-year-old school leaver.

The budget for leadership and management has been increased from £4m in 2007/08 to £30m in 2008/09, which will support some 20,000 owner-managers in around 14,000 companies each year. But McGurk says if we truly want to compete in a global knowledge economy, the government needs to address the fact that the percentage of the £1bn Train to Gain budget (less than 4%) set aside to up-skill managers will fall short of meeting this need.

He also highlights that in the UK skills and training world, change has been the only constant. "There needs to be a period of stability," he says. "Government should have a moratorium on change and see how these current schemes come through."

British Chamber of Commerce director-general David Frost agrees. "There have been four major reforms to the vocational skills procedures and organisations established in the UK since 2000," he says. "How are we ever going to see meaningful improvements if the government constantly tinkers and restructures the delivery mechanisms only recently installed?"

In its defence, the DUIS points out the size of the challenge uncovered by Lord Leitch’s 2006 skills review. "Of course we want to create the right conditions for our plans to work," says the DIUS spokesman. "But we must allow ourselves and our partners to make changes which will take forward improvements to the skills and training system."

But as Frost points out: "If we are ever to reverse the slipping standards of skills in this country, we must inject some essential consistency into the process."

- In the US 74% of managers have a degree, compared to 49% in the UK

- Productivity is higher by 30% if all the workforce has a degree

- Only 31% of UK adults have a degree

- Government expects 34% of all adults to have a degree by 2011, 36% by 2014 and 40% by 2020

- Half the 18m vacant jobs to 2020 will be graduate level

- More graduates needed in science, maths and engineering

- 40% of all UK mangers have a qualification at or below level two

Source: Government consultation on higher skills


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