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Top reads of 2008: Is the Train to Gain already derailed?


DerailedJust over a year ago, Lord Leitch set out lofty goals to plug the yawning skills gap in the UK by 2020. Louise Druce asks whether the training community is on the right track or looking at serious delays.

It’s been over a year since Lord Leitch published a skills review setting out ambitious goals to boost literacy and training in workplaces by 2020, worth a potential £80 billion. But while the review was applauded for recognising the desperate need to plug the skills gap in the UK in the face of diminishing competitiveness, are we any closer to reaching the heroic prize of “higher productivity, the creation of wealth and social justice” for all?

Lord Leitch was optimistic. Sadly, the very people the review hoped would take up the mantle are less certain about achieving its aims unless radical changes are made to delivering its targets.

Lord Leitch’s vision for 2020

* 95% of working age adults have basic skills in both functional literacy and numeracy
* Over 90% of adults are skilled to GCSE level or vocational equivalents
* Number of apprentices boosted to 500,000 each year
Over 40% of adults are skilled to graduate level and above

The main bone of contention seems to lie in an over-emphasis on the skills pledge to train eligible employees up to so-called level 2 standards, the equivalent of five good GCSEs. While not an unwelcome measure, there are rumblings it is the education system that should be shouldering this burden, not the business community. Other firms would prefer to spend funds on training more relevant to their own needs.

“We’re concerned skills higher up the qualification scale, such as learning skills, knowledge skills and scientific skills are going to be neglected,” explains the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) learning, training and development adviser John McGurk.

Last year, the CIPD blamed poor management for skills not being used to full effect, something that is unlikely to be resolved by concentrating heavily on level 2 achievements. “A big productivity problem is the fact we haven’t addressed management problems,” he says. “We have lots of managers who are properly trained at the top and a lot of people with basic education at advisory levels who are being asked to take on more and more responsibility. Government is pouring all resources into people at the bottom of the qualification scale, which alleviates that problem. But then you have the problem of having poorly trained managers because you have poorly trained employees.

The Leitch recommendations:

Increasing skill attainments at all levels.

Routing public funding of vocational skills through Train to Gain and Learner Accounts.

Strengthening the employer voice on skills through creation of a new Commission for Employment & Skills, increasing employer engagement and investment in skills, reforming Sector Skills Councils who will simplify and approve vocational training.

Launching a new 'pledge' for employers to voluntarily train more employees at work. If insufficient progress has been made by 2010, introduce a statutory right for employees to access workplace training.

Increasing employer investment in higher level qualifications, especially in apprenticeships and in degree and postgraduate levels; significantly more training in the workplace.

Raising people's aspirations and awareness of the value of skills, creating a new universal adult careers service to diagnose skill needs with a skills health check available for all.

Government to introduce compulsory education or workplace training up to age 18 following introduction of new diplomas and expanded apprenticeship route.

Integrating the public employment & skills services to deliver sustainable employment, enabling more disadvantaged people to gain skills and find work, developing employer-led Employment and Skills Boards.

“Skills within the workforce which employers undertake to up-skill the rest of the workforce are not being valued in the way they should.”

Then there is the red tape issue. In November, the government announced it was committing a massive £1 billion to the flagship Train to Gain initiative, under the umbrella of The Learning and Skills Council (LSC). Its premise is to provide employers with impartial, independent advice on training needs, but there are also funded programmes available for apprenticeships and those wanting qualifications at level 2 and above. Many businesses, including a number of corporate heavy-weights, have signed up, but there is a certain amount of hoop-jumping to be done.

“There are lots of adults in the workplace that don’t have those levels of qualifications, we’re not pretending there isn’t a need,” says McGurk. “Our concern is the bureaucracy. There isn’t a one-stop-shop but lots of touch points you have to go through to get it in place. It’s generally beset by too many organisations with a finger in the pie,” says McGurk.

While the Federation for Small Businesses (FSB) has whole-heartedly supported Train to Gain’s wage contributions for businesses with under 50 employees that want to undertake training, it has also spotted a flaw in the plan; namely that small businesses need to be much more flexible in their training. If you take a company with four employers, for example, give just one member of staff time off to train and you’ve effectively lost 25% of your workforce.

“To be more effective, we would like to see the government thinking more about small and micro businesses and how training will suit them, not just providing large businesses with recognised qualifications because it is easier,” says FSB policy adviser Matthew Jaffa. “Training needs to be provided in bite-sized chunks maybe, or on-the-job.”

He would also like to see more up-skilling in the workplace and improved training at level 3 and above. “We see a major skills gap there,” he adds.

Are the targets being targeted?

However, somewhat contradictory to the belief everything is being pushed towards bringing staff up to level 2 standards, research by Professor Kim Hoque at Nottingham University Business School indicates routine unskilled workers actually get less training in the workplace. He specifically targets one of the training bastions, Investors in People, as doing little, if anything, to meet level 2 targets. “Routine unskilled workers get less training than other people but they get less training in Investor in People workplaces than they would in others,” he says.

When you consider over 30,000 workplaces in the UK are recognised as Investors in People and the high esteem in which it is held by government, it is not an insignificant claim.

“The most sensible explanation is you’ve got a requirement to link your training to the needs of the business, which makes perfect sense,” he continues. “The problem is, in a lot of UK companies it comes to be interpreted in a very narrow way - the way companies are financed, they are looking at short-term targets. It means, very often, the immediate needs of the business require it to train people high up but not necessarily people across the organisation. There are other studies showing that when Investors in People is introduced, it can actually reduce training spend rather than increase it for exactly that sort of reason.”

Of course, this is something Investors in People vehemently denies. “Any organisation that seeks accreditation with the Investors in People Standard is rigorously assessed against our indicators of good practice and this includes analysis of whether it delivers the access to training and development support to all employees and segments of the workforce. If they don’t meet the evidence requirements, employers are not accredited,” says a spokesperson.

“This applies equally to any type of worker, whoever their employer, whatever their role. We work with organisations to make sure they incorporate all their employees within a planned approach to training and development, benefiting both the organisation and the individual involved. And we also help employers improve in areas such as leadership and management, which are central to realising the ambitious vision for skills laid out by Lord Leitch.”

"Government is pouring all resources into people at the bottom of the qualification scale, which alleviates that problem. But then you have the problem of having poorly trained managers because you have poorly trained employees."

John McGurk, CIPD

Talk shop not jargon

What isn’t in dispute, however, is the fact that both the CIPD and the FSB believe if training is to improve in UK workplaces according to the plans set out in the Leitch review, the government needs to focus more on the way it is tempting companies to adopt its initiatives.

In July, TrainingZone reported that a whopping £28 million was being poured into the government’s media-led skills advertising campaign. However, Jaffa believes while small businesses are taking up the Train to Gain initiative, the message is yet to filter down far enough to have a real impact. “It is a very good system and the way to go if it is operating well,” he says. “But it needs to be better advertised to small businesses through networking. They tend to hear about government schemes through word of mouth.”

Both Jaffa and McGurk also think the complexity and jargon surrounding the Leitch review and its aftermath schemes also needs to be simplified. “We’re expecting to sell qualifications to adults and young people and we’re using terminology such as level 2. It isn’t a great selling proposition to anybody and isn’t going to galvanise them to want to go and train,” says McGurk.

“Employers are put off by unwieldy, bureaucratic infrastructure. They need to stop and shop and know exactly what there is on the skills agenda.”

This feature was first published in January 2008.


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