Are skills initiatives missing the mark?

A disparity between training spend and results has come to light with the
publication of the National Employers Skills Survey (NESS) 2003.

The findings of the survey – commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council
(LSC) – paint a gloomy picture of the state of skills and training in England.
Despite employers spending more than £4.5 billion on training and an estimated
extra £10 billion in terms of staff time, only around half of employees are
benefiting.

More than a fifth of employers reported skills gaps in their workforce,
which were adversely affecting their business. Yet only 39 per cent had a
training plan and less than a third (31 per cent) even had a budget in place
for training.

The subject of training levies has once again raised its head in the wake of
the findings.

"If the current voluntary approach doesn’t produce the necessary
training, and if the Government doesn’t have enough money to fund it, we need
to examine whether Sector Skills Councils should collect money from
employers," said Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at
the Association of Colleges.

Others take a wait-and-see approach. Paul Wilkinson, chairman of Improve,
the developing food and drink Sector Skills Council said that he is against
coercion to achieve business objectives and that a levy would be a last resort.

"I would prefer our SSC to engage with employers on the basis that
we’re providing value-for-money products and services that they want to
buy," he said.

"If we can’t persuade them and the skills gaps and skills shortages
still exist, then maybe that’s the last resort."

However, Wilkinson agrees there’s a need for dramatic improvements in skills
by whatever means. "Let’s see how this system gets on at the moment but if
it doesn’t work then we have to move on and look at other options," he
said.

A massive 72,000 interviews were carried out between April and June last
year for the survey – the largest of its kind. It included the smallest firms
(employing up to five staff) right up to major organisations, in 27 sectors
across England.

"The biggest surprise was finding that 2.4 million employees were
considered by their employers not to be fully proficient in their jobs"
said Stephen Gardner, director of skills and workforce development at LSC.

"Skills gaps between applicants and job vacancies are consistent with
what we’ve seen in the past and the sectors where the shortages were identified
were as expected, but there are huge variations across the sectors," he
said.

While 43 per cent of employees lacked practical and technical skills, the
high instance of ‘soft skills’ deficiencies was unexpected. Where employees
were judged by their employer not to be up to the job, 61 per cent were seen to
lack communication skills, 55 per cent customer handling skills and 52 per cent
were short on teamworking skills.

Training plans

"One good thing is that the number of employers who don’t have a training
plan has gone down by 15 per cent in two years (from 76 per cent revealed in a
similar survey in 2001 to 61 per cent). We’re pleased to be making some impact,
but there’s still a long way to go," said Gardner.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) sees the survey – conducted
before the launch of the Skills Strategy last year – as supporting the
direction of the Government and the LSC.

"The report certainly doesn’t shock us. It’s in line with previous
surveys," said DfES spokesman, Philip Treloar.

"It reinforces the need in the Skills Strategy for putting employers’
needs first and we’re starting to make progress – not just through the National
Skills Alliance, but also the Skills for Business network."

Treloar cautions against alarmist interpretations of the findings:
"Skills gaps are a serious issue, but to label people who some employers
see as having shortcomings as incompetent isn’t correct," he warned.

So what happens now? The information will feed into the Government’s Skills
Strategy and shape the work of the Skills Alliance. "It’s possible to cut
the data both geographically, so we can use it within regional skills
partnerships, and sectorally, so it can be used by Sector Skills Councils to
inform their Sector Skills Agreements," Gardner explained. "We have
the funds to make training available to the workforce and the more employers we
can get involved in funded learning the better."

But some people question the adequacy of funding. Colleges are the biggest
provider of adult learning, yet their LSC budget allocations for 2003-2006 are
£40 million short of what is needed to meet the Skills Strategy priority areas.
Gravatt, of the Association of Colleges added: "Colleges are being told to
reorientate their publicly-funded provision towards the priority areas, with
the expectation that Level 3 learning and everything else will be funded
through employers and individuals." Yet many areas which the LSC does not
consider priorities are employers’ priorities, he contends.

By Elaine Essery

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