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LSC featured interview: Largest ever survey of UK training under way


Starting this week, the Learning and Skills Council is conducting a survey of 70,000 employers across England – the largest survey of its kind ever attempted. Michael Stark, Head of Skills at the LSC, explains to TrainingZONE why the organisation believes this can make a real difference to skills training provision, and provides updates on some of the other developments in their work.

TrainingZONE What are the main aims of the survey?

Michael Stark The Learning and Skills Council has a major workforce development strategy, and part of that is to engage employers more and in doing so to respond better to their real business needs by identifying actual precise skills needs and what is currently being done about them, whether organisations respond to them by developing staff, recruiting or what. So the survey will give us this information. We will find out where employers are along the spectrum from no interest in development to seeing skills as their only important asset. People should know where they are on this, but we need to measure.

We spend 2 ½ billion on adult skills, so it's only right that we should base our decisions on the best possible information. And engaging employers in our analysis of skills development is one of our most important targets.

TrainingZONE How is it going to work? And what's the time-scale?

Michael Stark The survey will rely on a telephone questionnaire that will take 20 minutes to complete. We have trialled this and got rid of wrinkles and obstacles. And we will be contacting 70,000 employers, making this the largest analysis of workforce skills ever. And this is not just a one-off, around 90% it will be repeated every year. Local LSCs will be able to customise it by adding issues that are of particular relevance to a region, but they can't subtract from it.

The results will also fit the sector skills system which is currently emerging. So the survey is on behalf of all agencies, they will all be able to pick up the fruits of it.
We aren't starting with an entirely blank slate either. The Learning and Training at Work survey has been running, but it has focussed on government surveys and initiatives, often subsidised ones. It hasn't asked about TNAs, evaluation of training, productivity and retention improvements. This survey will focus much more on what's important to companies.

TrainingZONE So current information was proving inadequate?

Michael Stark We have a number of different surveys, whose results don't lock together. The Labour Force Survey tracks individuals. It's a little bit crude in some respects, but has been good because it asks the same questions again and again, which has helped to identify trends, but it used a broad brush in terms of sectors: for instance you would get some results telling you about "manufacturing", which would cover every possible area of manufacturing. We need more detail than that, a much larger sample that can be broken down to be of use to each of 47 Learning and Skills Councils, and within each of the skills sectors too.

There have been surveys of employers too, done by the Office for National Statistics or the DTI. What we will be able to do with the new survey is to fit together data from employers and employees. There has been a problem there in the past: employers say they have run more training than employees say they have gone through. Employers have tended to include all statutory instruction and compliance guidance necessary for a job as training. What we want to find out is how many of these skills are transferable.
Rather like the Deprivation Index, the survey's results won't depend on a single factor, they will give a complex reading, with detailed information on companies, areas and sectors.

TrainingZONE The scope is huge, any concerns about getting responses from these kind of number?

Michael Stark It is a very big undertaking, four times the size of any previous one. But we have looked at the costs and logistics of the telephone survey, and they are practical and manageable, and given the levels of funding that the results will influence, the annual costs of the survey won't be prohibitive. It is starting this month. We hope to have some early cuts of the research to look at by May or June, and something more sophisticated by September. It will feed into the plans of the Regional Development Agencies and the DfES Skills Strategy that is due in the summer.

TrainingZONE Are Individual Learning Accounts due to make a reappearance soon?

Michael Stark In spite of the problems with ILAs, we feel that the concept still has some mileage, and a full announcement on this can be expected in June.
The original approach drew in people already engaged in learning, who would have used their own money. It didn't make much impact among people with very low skills. The rhetoric suggested that this was the target market, but really it wasn't going to reach people who needed to be persuade of the argument to engage with further learning at all. It really wasn't ideal for basic skills.

At the moment, the individual learner can often get training at colleges which is already effectively subsidised, in that they don't pay the full costs for running courses. Funding beyond that should be focussed in a more sophisticated way. You can't have everything for nothing, obviously. So we need to aim finance where it's most effective. This may mean free (and even more than free) training for basic and level 2 skills. And through models like the ILA it may mean targeting training where the economy most needs it or where it can be most effective.
The how and when are still under discussion.

TrainingZONE What has progress been like on the Employer Training Pilots?

Michael Stark They are going very successfully in the six original areas. Remember they only effectively started in September. We have recruited over 2,000 employers, which is a great result. And this has been to train people in basic and level 2 skills, people who would otherwise almost certainly not have engaged in more training. The scheme involves brokerage, support, free training and assessment, and wage compensation to employers which can even be more than 100%. Basically it takes away all excuse form employers not to engage with skills training.

TrainingZONE Is there evidence that a real culture change can be effected?

Michael Stark The change will come if employers really see a higher level of competence in their people. So far very few have dropped out, and that's really impressive from a grouping that often has difficulties with retention, it's something like 20 out of 7 - 8,000. Crucially it looks to have established a firm link between employer engagement and employee uptake and retention. Of couse, this is a pilot, the larger scale version may not be so generous. But hopefully we will find out what really works and be able to create the conditions to repeat success on a wider scale and make a real difference.

TrainingZONE Any particular expectations from the Budget?

Michael Stark The Budget confirms rather than innovates for this. There will be a big splash for the Employer Training Pilots. The funding has gone up form 40 million to 130 million, and is being extended to new areas.

TrainingZONE The LSC has recently been getting involved with the Federation of Small Businesses and the Local Government Association too. Is this a change of direction?

Michael Stark It's a carrying out of original purposes. The LSC administers £8 billion annually, it's the largest quango. If we don't talk to everyone involved and reach into sectors then we can't do this properly. The Federation of Small Businesses has standards for advisers, and we are keen to learn from that. Local Governments are crucial as standard setters and as employers, and if we don’t work with them we miss a huge swathe of the public sector and also much of where public meets private. We need to do this to be at our most effective.


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