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Spotlight on training by small businesses


Small businesses do train, according to the Small Business Council’s new report, 'Measuring Training in Small Firms'. The report calls for greater sensitivity on the part of policymakers to the variety and extent of actual training practices within small businesses, and suggests ways in which the Government can work with, rather than against, small firms.

Many studies based on large-scale quantitative surveys have concluded that small firms provide less training than larger businesses, and policymakers have extended the argument to suggest that small employers provide insufficient training. Low skills levels are often cited as a reason for Britain's relatively poor labour productivity and low economic performance. As a result, raising employers' and employees' demand for training has become a major policy objective. This report shows the extent to which demand is already being met, and suggests ways in which policy can more appropriately match demand and existing provision.

The report, commissioned by the Council’s Workforce Development Interest Group and carried out by Kingston University academics, draws on evidence obtained from a number of in-depth case studies, focusing on businesses in the manufacturing, construction and service industries.

William Sargent, Chair of the Small Business Council, comments: "In-house informal training is generally of more value to small businesses than formal, external training. However, this kind of training is often ‘invisible’ to policymakers and the Government only measures formal qualifications or participation in its own initiatives. It is the assumption that small businesses don’t train which drives Whitehall policy and leads to poor design of Government support structures for the small business sector.

"Small businesses don’t provide inadequate training. Instead, they provide training which is directly relevant to their own business needs. Skills are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Formal qualifications are often an incidental result of developing workforce skills, rather than a primary motivation for training."

Employability and productivity are sometimes erroneously regarded as separate contradictory drivers to training: productivity being achieved through skills driven informal training and employability through qualification driven formal training. The Council’s report stresses that these two drivers do not require different Government strategies - all forms of training have a positive impact on employability and productivity. DfES policy should be clear on what it is aiming to achieve and needs to recognise the link between employability and job performance.

The Council calls for the Government to listen to what employers say they need and then develop the supply-side to meet the demand. The Council makes the following suggestions for taking this forward:

- Skills Passport – a record of informal and formal training which would be a permanent record of competencies attained by individuals.

- Skills Audit – small businesses should be encouraged to undertake a skills audit as part of short and long term business objectives.

- Intermediaries – the Government should recognise that entrepreneurs learn best from other entrepreneurs and, as such public funding should support professional intermediaries. The Council suggests a ‘light touch’ standard for such intermediaries so that qualifying for the standard is a simple, non-bureaucratic exercise.

- Training providers should work with small businesses to design formal courses with employer recognised skills outputs rather than just content or qualifications outputs.

- Vocational courses should be redesigned with an emphasis on work-based skills rather then paper and exams.

William Sargent, concludes, "Small firms are big business and training is a big issue for small businesses. Policymakers should recognise and support all forms of learning within small businesses and encourage them to enhance their training in a way that works for them, rather then trying to impose prescriptive and at times, irrelevant training provision. We hope that this report will act as a catalyst to promote discussion in Whitehall."

The Small Business Council is an independent, non-departmental public body which advises the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Chief Executive of the Small Business Service on issues relating to small businesses. The Council is made up of 22 members, who between them represent a broad cross-section of age, sex, regions and industry across the UK. In April 2002, the Council’s Chair, William Sargent, was given an enhanced role by the Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt as the ‘independent voice for small firms’ in Government.

Do you think that a lot of training in small firms goes unnoticed by policy-makers? Post your comments below.


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