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The Learning Summit: Ken Mayhew, Director, SKOPE on ‘high skills’


One early evening session at the HRD 2001 conference brought together three prominent names in work-based training to discuss the role of skills and learning in the UK economy.

Taking part in 'The Learning Summit: Skills and learning: are they the key drivers to achieving economic success?' were Lord Puttham, CBE, chairman of the general teaching council and NESTA, Key Mayhew, Fellow in Economics at Pembroke College Oxford and Director of SKOPE (an ESRC research centre on skills, knowledge and organisational performance) and Jobn Stevens, Director of Public Policy and Development at the CIPD.

Here, we paraphrase the speech given by Ken Mayhew.

"The debate about skills has been going on for many years, and in my view, there's been little achievement. Much of the literature in the US at the end of 1980's was centred around the fact that the only way for a wealthy economy to be competitive was by competing on high skills. Not long after, the vision became evident in the UK - through the government and DTI white papers - that the only way to compete was through high skills.

It seems obvious to increase skills levels - indeed, much of government policy has been aimed at this. What was wrong at end of 1970's was that too many left school early, and many had poor basic skills. Adult training barely existed. Since then, there's been massive change in policies and governments in terms of work-based training. At first sight, there have been dramatic improvements, e.g. in the numbers staying at school - over a third now go to University. There's as least as much work-based training as elsewhere in Europe. However, there's lots (of training) for the over 25's but no sustained improvement for younger ages. Basic literacy and numeracy is still appallingly lacking. The UK is deficient in intermediate technician-type skills. NVQ1 wouldn't be recognised as a qualification in most EU countries, but most of our NVQs are level 1 and level 2 (which equates to GCSE). People have got more qualifications, but we're not altering the way jobs are done - there's an improvement but it's not clear how new skills are being used. There are still many unskilled jobs.

NACETT talked about skills shortages, but there are actually recruitment problems - the money being offered is not good enough, for example. SKOPE has had limited success because the UK has a major problem in demand for skills by employers. We may still have a low demand for skills, because there is evidence that British consumers still want 'low spec' goods rather than 'high spec' goods. Low spec goods are produced as standard - whereas high spec goods require personalisation. Offering low spec goods and services means that skills are not needed - they can be designed out. Retail banking and car manufacturers might want to think about this! With high spec goods and services, specifications can be changed quickly, which requires more skill. With the UK producing low spec goods and services, there are lower rewards for employees and we can't compete with the 'Third World' on pay.

There are things the government can do about this - by looking to other countries, and by creating higher quality demand in UK domestic market. We need to look at demand-side intervention by government, although this is currently seen as unacceptable. We don't want to land up with US-style 'clusters' - wealth for the few - but we want to encourage employers to give genuine regard for their Human Resources. It should all be nudging towards a common vision of society - there are many ways of achieving a successful economy. If we want an economy sustainable in the medium term, we need a high skills vision, but we also need to look at what organisations want to produce."


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