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Mind the gap!


In this contributed feature, Godfrey Owen, Deputy Chief Executive of training providers Brathay, argues that in order to address the wider skills shortage in the UK it is vital that British businesses fully adopt lifelong learning.

The recent creation of a government task force to expand the Modern Apprenticeship scheme in the UK is the first acknowledgement that the skills gap in the Britain is not simply restricted to the IT industry. The initiative, however, falls short of a strategy to ensure workers at all stages of their career, not just young people, are equipped with the skills they need to do their jobs.

The UK Skills gap has been estimated by the TUC to cost British business around £20 billion every year. Far from being confined to the IT industry, as press reports would have us believe, it crosses almost every industry and marketplace and affects all employees from apprentices and graduates to chairmen and chief executives. In addition, despite a range of published solutions from government bodies, workforce think-tanks and skills development agencies, the skills gap will not simply disappear. The skills gap is an ongoing reality for UK companies and no amount of skilled asylum seekers or government investment in apprenticeship training will provide a quick fix.

This is one of the most misunderstood factors that underpins the ongoing skills shortage, and has at times helped to perpetuate it. While some businesses are beginning to promote the development of apprentice programmes in the belief that it will safeguard the future of their business, they often neglect the competencies of their existing workforce. Having created a level of competence at apprentice level, employers often fail to develop this as employees move to more senior positions of management and leadership. If skills enhancement is not part of a continuous development programme to deliver the skills they need to be effective as they climb the management ladder, it will not benefit the individual or the organisation. It also will have no positive impact on improving the organisational skills gap.

The dramatic rise in organisations promoting apprentice development programmes within their organisation can be directly linked to a reduction of management-ready graduates coming directly from University. Why is this? Well I believe it can be attributed very firmly to an inherent lack of the soft skills required to manage teams effectively within the workplace. While degrees provide a wealth of technical knowledge and skills that will more than enable them to do a job, students are not, and it could be argued cannot be, taught the requisite communications, negotiation and motivation skills and behaviours they need to undertake junior management positions within the workplace.

Current modified apprenticeship and graduate development programmes are often designed simply to bridge the gap between university qualifications and the first step in the next generation of business leaders’ careers. In order to add real value to business by making a contribution to the ongoing skill shortage, there must be a springboard - a catalyst which will ensure that new employees learn the skills that will form the basis for the rest of their career. By using graduate development, employers can equip employees with the core leadership skills and behaviours they need and instil an understanding that future success depends on the evolution and improvement of these key competencies, as their responsibility increases. Then, and only then, will we start to address the internal and wider economic skills gap.

Our experience has shown that over the last couple of years, as the number of graduate programmes has increased, businesses have started to develop a better understanding of the value of continuous professional development throughout the organisation. The key to realising tangible return-on-investment from development and training has been an increased awareness that skills development (technical or soft) must be an ongoing programme, to cater for the changing demands of an employee throughout their career. As a result, development has started to become recognised as the investment it is, rather than an expense (which has often been the view historically). This change of heart has impacted all types of training, where ad-hoc one off programmes have not brought the necessary results, but an ongoing programme has delivered significant benefits. The value of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is at last starting to be recognised.

Another realisation in recent years is the value of using development and training programmes as a way of attracting and retaining the best staff. Two of the biggest concerns of British business for 2003, were recruiting the right calibre of staff and retaining them. CPD provides a solution to both of these challenges. In recruitment, there has been a marked re-focussing by candidates, away from packages that focus solely on financial reward and towards positions which offer clear development plans. Salary is, not surprisingly, still the number one consideration for both graduates and seasoned professionals alike – everyone has to be able to pay the bills – but there has been a noticeable increase in the demand for specific career development opportunities.

This employee awareness of both the personal and professional benefits of development programmes, is aiding HR departments. Historically, the difficulty has been in getting individuals to undertake ongoing training either due to lack of enthusiasm, or employees with the ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude to training. As workforce attitudes towards continuous professional development changes, employers must not become complacent. While employees are hungrier to develop new skills and are more aware of their own needs, professional development must be a joint effort. It would be easy for UK businesses to rely on individuals to highlight their training needs – if you look at the current focus of CPD and initiatives like Investors in People it is still very much reliant on employees taking the lead in this area. For CPD to be a real success and make a significant improvement on the current skills gap, it must be a partnership between employer and workforce. The psychological contract between the two parties is changing to become a less paternalistic and a more balanced one, however if not addressed, it is possible that businesses will be led by the workforce. By definition, CPD must be part of a strategic organisational change – supporting the growth, maturity and increased prosperity of a business and its employees.

In order for CPD to have an identifiable impact on the skills shortage, it is important that the development is not started from the bottom up. We are already seeing an increase in corporate sponsored senior management development via MBA’s, professional qualification and experiential interventions. This ensures that rather than starting the process at graduate level and waiting for them to work their way up the management tree, CPD will address the current skills gap at all levels, or at least from the top and bottom. This approach will, if done correctly, will mean that there is a meeting of skills and competencies somewhere in the middle.

CPD not only plays an important role in attracting the right graduates, but is a major contributor to companies retaining their most experienced and skilled staff. With high recruitment costs, especially for experienced senior employees, skills development is not only a cost effective way of ensuring high levels of skills are retained within an organisation but of driving business performance. By developing the entire workforce, rather than simply investing in new recruits at the sacrifice of middle and senior management, businesses can start the process of closing the growing skills gap facing UK businesses. There is no quick fix - it takes time to develop a workforce with the necessary interpersonal and communication skills they need at every stage of their career - but the results of continuous skill development for employees, and the impact that is has on business performance is nothing short of amazing.


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