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Skills in the UK – World Leading or Lagging?


As a country we are aware that we are facing a national skills shortage, a message further evidenced by two reviews in two years by Sandy Leitch, yet the Government aims to make the UK a world leader in skills by 2020. The skills pledge may be a step in the right direction to achieving this goal, but is it a little too late? David Armory, executive director from a national provider of commercial and publicly-funded training, QGS Synergy, investigates what procedures are in place to reach this target and asks “is it achievable?”

For too long education and training has been seen as the responsibility of universities, colleges and government, but employers are also a vital part of this. Employer commitment towards vocational education and training is essential if we are to bridge the identified skills gap and become a world leader in skills by 2020 as Leitch proposed. Initial indications are that the Skills Pledge seems to be a progressive step towards doing this.

If fully implemented, Lord Leitch’s report could put the country on track to dramatically improve the UK’s skills industry over the next two decades. However, to reach the skills targets we need for economic success and competitiveness against the likes of China, India and Eastern Europe employers, colleges, private training providers and everyone else linked to the education and training sector need to accept that a host of issues must be addressed.

At the moment there is too much confusion and uncertainty between employers and employees about what publicly funded training is available and how it can benefit them. Although there are major funding changes proposed which could define some of these boundaries and make it clearer for employers sourcing funding, careful planning and management over a realistic period of time in order to maintain stability of provision for the millions of adults currently in colleges will be required.

Seventy per cent of the 2020 working age population are already over the age of 16 today. We cannot simply wait for changes to education in schools and higher education to lead to improvements in a skilled workforce; we need to train the workforce already in place. This is where difficulties in achieving world leadership in skills may become apparent. The funding for the provision of skills training needs to be part of a long-sighted policy and not simply dependent on the changing short-term needs of employers.

Immediate and long-term skills needs must be considered and incorporated.
Employers must also accept that although they are happy to fund training and development for managers and senior staff, they must also do this for other employees. In our experience it is often the shop-floor and front-line staff, those with few if any qualifications, who know more about what can be improved in business but who never get the opportunity to show us what they can do to reduce cost, improve service and increase productivity.

Let me give you two brief examples where we’ve seen substantial results from delivering training to the shop floor workforce. In a manufacturing environment we delivered our Business Improvement Techniques Programme to production operatives where one Business Improvement Project (candidates usually do three) identified a waste saving of £3.2 million per annum. A second example was in a service environment and the same programme identified an improvement equating to £2.4 million per annum. In both cases, we used a nationally recognised qualification as the template and Train to Gain funds covered all fees; the only investment from the employer was 25 hours per candidate, on average, and their time to guide us on their key business priorities.

Which level?
Train to Gain was launched in 2006 and focuses mainly on those without a full level two qualification. My concern is that the goal of colleges and training providers will be to achieve the qualification, rather than using the qualification framework to impart economically valuable skills that an employer can clearly measure. Although the sector has improved dramatically, there are still too many examples of "paper" qualifications as opposed to "meaningful" qualifications.

Train to Gain will also support employers with higher-level qualifications, but I do feel that fully subsidized first level 3 qualifications would be a huge benefit to employers, especially when they deliver economically valuable skills. I feel that once employers see the financial return for training they will more readily contribute financially, as they should.

Apprenticeships continue to play a crucial role in our skills future, equipping motivated young people with the skills and knowledge to do the job better. While QGS Synergy does not deliver apprenticeships, we are actively seeking partners, as we firmly believe that by working closely together we will be able to achieve success for the UK, and for ourselves.

Already the training industry is showing signs of rationalization, with the inevitable move towards there being a smaller number of consolidated, larger providers. This will undoubtedly impact upon the skills provided. In order that this impact is positive for the UK, the industry needs to work together to ensure key niche subject and geographic specialisms are not lost in the pursuit of streamlining the industry.

So, can the UK be a world skills leader by 2020? We have a tough target to achieve. The UK needs to accept the need to invest now, and ensure that we focus on delivering and obtaining economically valuable skills. Skills providers must continue to measure impact as best we possibly can and work together for success. With that in mind, there is no reason why we cannot be a world-class leader in skills and reap the financial rewards that they will undoubtedly bring.


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