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Small firms want flexible training


The Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) has carried out research with SMEs (employing 2-250 staff ) to assess the extent and effectiveness of workforce development, examine how priorities are identified, discover the types of learning that are taking place and
assess their effectiveness.

The results have been published as "Working towards skills". They suggest that the plethora of initiatives to support workforce development seem to have had minimal impact in SMEs. The research shows that, to succeed, these initiatives must demonstrate how learning can support business objectives.

Main findings
- Most (90%) employers agreed that training and development was necessary for business growth, 83% agreed that it led to greater productivity and only 12% felt that workforce
development was not necessary in the present circumstances.

- The majority of employers (over 70%) said that training for the workforce should be designed mainly to meet business targets and aims. Most stressed the need for an informal, flexible approach to training with learning embedded in the context of the workplace.

- Many also agreed that training and development was necessary for individuals’ personal growth, with over 85% saying that it led to better motivated staff. Only 20% felt that it disrupted work.

- A minority (15%) agreed that developing the workforce would lead to increased turnover of staff. But amongst the smallest firms (employing fewer than 11 staff ) 29% of employers thought that developing staff would lead to poaching by other employers.

- Two thirds (66%) thought training and development should be the responsibility of employers and slightly more than half (53%) felt that their staff should not have to pay for their own training. Almost one third felt that the government should fund it.

- 43% of all respondents and 63% in firms employing between 11 and 20 staff agreed that training and development should be provided in work time.

- Training is carried out by a variety of people and organisations – some in-house and some external. There was no consensus on whether learning is best done in the workplace or off-the-job. Half (50%) used colleges and slightly more (64%) used training providers. In many cases (65%) the manager provided training. Other sources were suppliers of kits or services, often provided by the supplier of a product. There was a strong feeling that workforce development should not be undertaken using ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). Only 2% of respondents were using learndirect courses.

- There was little evidence of involvement in schemes such as the Union Learning Fund or in employer-led approaches such as Employee Development Schemes. The focus groups with employees highlighted the importance of the outlook of the owner/manager on the firm’s growth and survival prospects as critical to the importance placed on training. Employees also stressed that there has to be a business change such as new legislation or product development stimulating demand for new skills and, subsequently, training. They mentioned barriers to training including lack of time, lack of money and lack of space in the workplace. Almost a quarter said their employers did not make any attempt to assess their training needs and few had been asked by their employer for their views about staff development.

Maria Hughes, research manager at the Learning and Skills Development Agency, comments: "There is evidence that workforce development is gaining ground as a concept. But the clear message is that small firms usually face different problems, requiring different solutions, from those faced by bigger companies. The emphasis has to be on informal, time-efficient training which is linked to business performance, not a rigid one-size-fits-all approach. If work-based learning is to be effective, barriers need to be overcome. This includes motivating people to learn as well as convincing business of the benefits of training and development."


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