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Work-Based Accreditation: A Proposal With Teeth? By Annie Hayes


UK workers are being branded as the laggards of the EU skills pool, according to a leading business group, who suggest putting work-based training in prime position via a new accreditation system. Reactions have been frosty, Annie Hayes reports.

Shaping up for the future: The business vision for education and skills the 49 page epic report from business group, the CBI sets out its agenda for boosting the so-called flagging skills level of the UK workforce. In the report, Richard Lambert, Director-General of the organisation explains just why this huge step change is being called for.

“Business will not continue to prosper in the twenty-first century – creating jobs, paying taxes, funding growth – with the current levels of workforce skills.

“We now compare well with the best of the workforce qualified to degree level. But we need to do more. At the level of intermediate skills, we have too many employees who are competent, but who lack the qualifications they need to be mobile in the labour market. And while we have many world-class companies with outstanding leadership and management skills, performance elsewhere is patchy.”

The CBI say that money is not to blame. According to the report, UK businesses invested £33bn on staff training last year - as a share of payroll the highest in the EU – however just one pound in three was recognised with a formal award. And it goes onto say that the UK ranks poorly in the international league table of staff with intermediate qualifications, like NVQs. Just 40% of British adults have such a qualification compared to 57% in the USA and 63% in Germany.

This is not because UK workers are less skilled than their overseas counterparts, the CBI argue, but the primary focus of employers is on developing their staff's abilities, rather than acquiring qualifications.

What Can Be Done?
The CBI recommends that the government should pay for the accreditation of learning to manage what they see as the skills shortfall. They propose using the government’s Adult Learner Accounts (ALAs) proposed by Lord Leitch to fund the accreditation of learning. There would be an additional exchequer cost – some £470m annually – associated with accreditation of a third of the employer training schemes not currently leading to qualifications.

This would enable, say the group employers to self-accredit their internal training. To kick-start the process a number of trailblazers or pilots are being suggested to show what can be done and drive forward accreditation of company training with SSCs taking charge of the National Occupational Standards. So would this work and is it the panacea the training fraternity have been looking for?

Martyn Sloman, Adviser, Training, Learning and Development for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is sceptical. “Everybody recognises and wants to see the UK economy prosper but it’s unproven that accrediting more qualifications will get that result.”

A sentiment shared by many in the training community. Graham O’Connell, Head of Organisational Learning & Standards for the National School of Government expressing a personal point of view believes that whilst work-based training is indeed valuable, formal qualifications still play an important role and should not be overlooked. Talking about the qualifications and practical training mix he said:

“Together they should act as complementary ingredients in the corporate and national learning recipe. We need both – like jam and cream - sometimes combined in one programme or process, sometimes delivered apart. In my view, neither is more important than the other.”

Whilst Garry Platt, Tutor Consultant for Woodland Grange puts in doubt the validity of the correlation between having qualifications and being productive, “What’s the evidence for this or how have they come to this conclusion? Personally I see no evidence to support this; some of the most bone idle people I encountered have degrees. And by the way full time employed workers within the United Kingdom have the longest hours in Europe. The average for full timers in the UK is 43.5. In France it’s 38.2 and in Germany 39.9. Real laggards aren’t we?”

If the CBI proposals go ahead, however, formal qualifications look set to play second fiddle to on-the-job training. But qualifications still play their part and provide a crucial link between employment and the training market. Sloman agrees: “Individuals seek qualifications as an indication of portability.” The explosion in the take up of MBAs and CIPD qualifications, for example are clear indicators of the value of the qualifications currency.

“Credibility,” says Sloman, “Is an employment issue and not a training one.”

The repercussions of promoting in-house learning as the more valuable currency are not insignificant. The CV still the mainstay of traditional recruitment would take on a new form – how indeed would employers distinguish between candidates who would show-case themselves with long-lists of in-house accomplishments and training?

The Aussie Model
The CBI point towards the Australian model in answering these questions. According to the report, the Australian system provides a good model where employers are licensed to provide programmes, the content of which is directly agreed with Industry Training Advisory Bodies – the Australian equivalent of SSCs.

Coles Group (the second largest retailer in Australia) is offered as an example. Licensed it can accredit its own training and give its employees formal qualifications.

The CBI suggest taking a copy and paste approach, rolling out a number of pilots following the Australian lead. But Sloman who has just returned from a conference tour of Australia is perplexed by the sudden holding up of this model as the pinnacle of the proposals. “The Australians are themselves astonished that Leitch has held them up as an example of how it should be done. There are quite a lot of criticisms of it. It’s easy for private businesses to get accredited but less so for the public sector providers.”

And Platt doubts that it would even work in practice: “Existing programmes would be tweaked and poked and altered so that they complied with some civil servant’s and university academic’s view of auditable assessment/verification and ‘hey presto’ an existing and perfectly good programme aimed at meeting the needs of the business would disappear before your very eyes, just like the government minister who would oversee and spin the whole fiasco before leaving office just after the failing statistics of this chronic initiative were announced, due of course to a reshuffle or ‘personal reasons’.

“I also wonder just how many courses are run in sufficient quantities that would make it viable to get them accredited? There must be some but only in very large organisations and government bodies. And what happens when I want to be flexible and change the content and process of the programme to reflect the changes in the workplace? Will I need to wait because of reaccreditation? And if the accreditation doesn’t impact on the programme in anyway, why am I doing it? Oh yes, so the CBI and government can attend international conferences and prove that they have a qualified work force.”

I asked retail giant John Lewis if they could envisage a scheme such as this working in their organisation. Tracey Andrews, Learning and Development Manager for the outfit explained the increasingly important role in-house training is taking at the business.

“Despite our enormous commitment to investing in our Partners' development, we have not looked to accredit that training to date, other than to offer a level 2 NVQ programme. However, more recently, in an ever more competitive employment market we feel that to attract the best applicants for our vacancies, we should offer employees the opportunity to gain recognition for the skills they have developed in their job as they are unlikely to stay in a 'job for life'.”

To achieve this John Lewis are working closely with the Learning & Skills Council and City & Guilds as well as Skillsmart, with whom they are working in conjunction to create a pre-employment qualification so that applicants in their new locations can gain the relevant retailing skills and fast track themselves into the recruitment assessment programme.

Further UK examples can be taken from car manufacturers. By training staff in operational excellence methodologies, Jaguar and Land Rover provides its workforce with additional skill-sets to contribute positively to improved growth and productivity. The training includes classroom-based learning but this is reinforced by the completion of sustainable improvement projects. There are plenty of examples to be gleaned from the big business sector but how would the scheme work for businesses with limited resources?

Does Size Matter?
The CBI, say that they recognise the significant differences between firms of different sizes and admit that it is the very small firms – the micro businesses that train least. Their solution is to take a differentiated approach. The CBI believes there are four distinct groups of employers, each of which would benefit from a targeted approach:

  • Employers who might be persuaded to train if they saw an economic benefit – largely, but not solely, smaller firms.

  • Employers who invest heavily in training and need little support from government, but whose employees would benefit from having their training accredited.

  • Employers who recognise the benefits but are not able to find appropriate training provision.

  • Employers who do not train because they do not believe that training is worthwhile for their company – some of whom may be entirely justified.

Around 60% of employers would like help in getting employees accredited with formal qualifications – but only a quarter have received help, they say.

There is no doubting that many firms invest considerable sums in training their employees, but their employees do not always acquire qualifications as a result. And it is this point that is under question. What the CBI is striving for is an accreditation system that flags up the value of the work-based training that goes on in businesses often unnoticed. But whether this will be a currency that can be traded purposefully and with meaning in the labour market is in doubt.

The training and HR community remain on the whole sceptical. Whilst larger players are making noises about the value of their in-house training including organisations like John Lewis it is unclear how smaller businesses will keep up, whether they even have the inclination to go down this route is an even bigger question because at the end of the day it is questionable what in the short-term at least is in it for them. As Sloman says, “Credibility is an employment issue and not a training one,” and that really seems to be the point.


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