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John Mumford

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Training to beat the recession


As the UK plunges deeper into recession and private businesses enter a period of financial unrest, many companies are taking the decision to cut back on work-based training. Dr John Mumford OBE, chair elect for HE@Work, explores employee attitudes towards this sea-change and outlines the steps that need to be taken to ensure that businesses are able to weather the storm.

The current financial crisis has made up-skilling and re-skilling a priority for businesses, but this is a hard pill to swallow for companies whose primary concern is to stay afloat.  With this in mind, it’s no surprise that rather than invest money in training and educating staff, businesses have started to cut back on the training they offer within the workplace.

According to HE@Work’s Annual Employee Training Index 2009, which polled 4,500 employees from private companies, only 48% of employers offer on-the-job training specific to job roles, revealing a dramatic 24% reduction since 2008. Furthermore, just under half of employees said they believed that employee training and development was important to their employer.

In 2008 employees sensed that their employers offered them a wide range of development opportunities. Now they feel that, although possibilities do exist, they are fewer in just about every area.  There is also evidence that their demands have tempered.  The findings demonstrate a siege mentality; keeping your head down till the troubles pass.

"In 2008 employees sensed that their employers offered them a wide range of development opportunities. Now they feel that, although possibilities do exist, they are fewer in just about every area."

Employee demand
The results show that although employees recognise that there is more training available online and through webcasts and podcasts, other training, such as on-the-job coaching, is being offered less often, and is less accessible to them. However, there is a genuine hunger and desire from those surveyed to develop in the workplace.  More than three-quarters of respondents stated that they want more training to help them learn and improve their skills. Moreover, they feel that they have yet to reach their full potential at work.

Although the respondents to this year’s survey showed a younger, and more highly (educationally) qualified profile - two-thirds of them wish they could have achieved more.  Yet they only rate the value of their qualifications in relation to their job - whether they are vocational or not - as being ‘quite valuable’. This evidence suggests that they would value more highly qualifications gained through their work experience.

There is a resounding fear among some employers that by providing opportunities and support for staff to gain recognised qualifications, you are essentially setting up a ‘training house’ which employees will take advantage of, before making the decision to leave the company and take their skills elsewhere. However, the Annual Employee Index shows that this is not the case.  The respondents state that the chance to study for an accredited qualification would actually make them feel more valued by their employer.  And while cutting back on training may seem like an obvious choice during a period of financial unrest, it’s a short-sighted one. It’s crucial that businesses continue to invest in the skills and talent of their people, as it is their commitment and ability which will help businesses weather the storm.

Furthermore, people are still willing to invest time in studying. Compared with last year’s results, the indication is that this is now more likely to occur at home rather than at work. Interestingly, despite the current economic environment, there is an increase in those prepared to invest financially in this type of study. This suggests that while money is tight, the perception of the value of these qualifications has increased.

Qualified success
Perhaps this is why we’re seeing an increase in students applying to universities.  Maybe it demonstrates a growing recognition that academic qualifications are important to their future success or alternatively that they want to remain students because they fear they will be unable to get a job – which has likely been exacerbated by the recent media frenzy about the credit crunch. There is, no doubt, a risk that these students will leave university in three years time and find the job market is no easier. They may find themselves at a disadvantage to their peers who got jobs and continued their learning in the workplace.  After all, there is no guarantee that doing a full time university course will make you more employable – and, in fact, many employers feel that students emerge from the educational system unable to carry out some of the basic tasks of business such as communicating effectively or managing budgets.

Students who are unsuccessful in gaining a university place can still gain academic qualifications through their work experience and the quality of their learning may suit them better in their future careers. Organisations which are able to develop their in-house learning and development opportunities into academic qualifications will reap the benefits. Learning in the workplace has major advantages; the learning is focussed on career development, it is aligned to the employer’s needs, and the employee gets paid while he or she learns. The research shows that employees rate their employers as the best providers of workplace learning, well ahead of academic institutions. Recognising this learning through prestigious academic qualifications is a just reward for those who learn in the workplace.

With the support of the government, we need to invest in our people to develop the skills that will be needed to bring us out of recession and build the economy for the future. It is not just a matter of training employees to do mundane trades.  It is about enabling people to learn from their environment and handle change.  Critical thinking and problem solving are key skills that are part and parcel - and these skills can be developed through learning in the workplace as well as at university. Training initiatives must be well designed – your work colleagues can replace the seminar group; your mentors can replace some of the tutors; the courses on offer at work can be aligned with rigorous academic outcomes and people don’t have to take months away from their role to achieve the qualifications. All of these elements working together will result in a win-win situation for all.


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