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Legal right to training time: Good news or bad?


AlarmHave Gordon Brown's controversial plans to give employees the right for time to train already set the alarm bells ringing? Louise Druce investigates.

Even given the much-publicised, ongoing pledge to plug the skills gap in the UK, Gordon Brown's recently revealed plans to give employees the legal right for time for training and for those "suitably qualified" to have the legal right to an apprenticeship has caused some controversy.

While organisations such as the CIPD and the TUC cautiously welcomed the move to bolster training and development, it has raised some serious questions about how much government intervention (or interference?) there should be when it comes to assessing a company's training needs and who should be in control of it.

One contentious issue is having a blanket policy for all, given the range of sectors and sizes UK companies come in. The Federation for Small Business (FSB) is in favour of higher skills levels and training overall but would like to see more recognition of informal training already carried out in SMEs, or at least make it easier for them to participate in a more formal programme.

"It is always going to be difficult to categorise and formalise what training small businesses offer because they often operate in niche markets."

Simon Briault, The Federation for Small Business

"The danger is small business owners are put off from getting involved in formal training schemes because they are quite complicated to administer," says FSB spokesperson Simon Briault, also highlighting that without an HR department, the amount of time business owners need to spend filling out reams of paperwork can become exasperating.

Training often involves employees spending time away from the workplace as well, which could create problems in terms of scale. "If you are employing four of five people and one is away, that's a quarter of your workforce gone," he explains.

"Most small businesses offer valuable on-the-job training already that may not be recognised. It is always going to be difficult to categorise and formalise what training small businesses offer because they often operate in niche markets. It will be difficult for the government to introduce a tick-box of what they have to do."

However, Briault adds that if the government keeps the scheme simple and proactively reaches out to small businesses to explain the implications and convince them of the benefits, small businesses will get behind the plans if they know they have enough support.

Reading between the lines

One entrepreneur who owns an IT firm that recently won a top award from the Learning and Skills Council is more sceptical. "If an individual has potential and their employer doesn't automatically recognise that and provide training where applicable, it's a sign that the employee isn't working for the right company," he says. "Surely the onus is on the employee to find an employer who is willing to provide training?

"I've bred a culture of ongoing development in our workplace. This involves heavily promoting and paying for training, including apprenticeships and commercial qualifications. However, I strongly object to the idea of business owners being forced to pick up the pieces for employees who opted out of education when they had the opportunity."

Of course, most of the finer details of the plans, to be set out in an Education and Skills Bill are speculation at the moment. What we do know is the government wants a consultation period on how workers can be legally empowered to request time to undertake training that will benefit them and their employer, modelled on the existing right to request flexible working.

"It is good to have a focus on training but it's only good if the training and development is appropriate for the organisation and for the individual."

Jo Causon, Chartered Management Institute

What is being mooted so far is that every adult will be offered a personal skills account so that they can access the training they need, which will be assessment based. Employers would be legally obliged to 'seriously consider' employee requests for training, having to give 'good business reasons' to refuse it – a clause Briault believes should be "sacrosanct" for small business owners.

The training does not have to be accredited training and employers will not be obliged to shell out for it, although this has been met with some cynicism.

Getting personal

The Education and Skills Bill will also build on the draft Apprenticeships Bill, which is being published this summer, in a determined effort to legally strengthen and boost the number of people taking up apprenticeship schemes.

Whether apprenticeships are the answer to corporate prayers is another matter for debate. But Jo Causon, director of marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, believes, overall, training and development is a positive thing in the current business climate, where skills shortages and recruitment and retention issues are threatening to hamper growth. "Individuals are drawn to organisations that offer development and stay with organisations when they feel they are being developed," she says.

However, she also emphasises there is a need to set parameters and a business case. It would be foolish to imagine you would have the right to request time off to go and do a pottery course if it had no relation to your current role. "Development of any sort needs to demonstrate the impact for the business, therefore it has to be aligned with the individual and the strategic goals of the organisation," she adds. "It is also about building the right skills to ensure the UK remains competitive."

For example, she cites transferable skills such as project management and change management as becoming more crucial but agrees with Briault that training is so wide ranging it can be hard to define. "Anyone developing people needs to make it clear what they're training people to do, why they are doing it and what they expect the outcome to be," she adds. "But as an individual you also have to take some responsibility for your training and development."

Only time itself will tell if time to train will be a success – no doubt the measures will be fine-tuned along the way as the debate rages on. For now, it has raised an important issue for the government, as Causon points out: "It is good to have a focus on training but it's only good if the training and development is appropriate for the organisation and for the individual".

Draft Education and Skills Bill in brief

  • Provide a statutory basis for the apprenticeship programme, creating a new National Apprenticeships Service
  • Secure a demand-led adult skills system, driven by learners and employers
  • New adult advancement and careers service will be housed within a new post-19 Skills Funding Agency
  • Strengthen workplace skills training, including right to request time to undertake relevant training
  • Secure contributions from employers towards English language provisions for employees speaking other languages

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