Back to basics on UK skills

The
Government is setting out its vision to boost the skills and productivity of
England’s workforce. One element is through the Skills for Life campaign which
determines how it will address deficits 
in basic adult skills in the workforce. Elaine Essery reports

Have
you ever stopped to consider the number of people in your organisation who
don’t apply for promotion, those who are fazed by changes in working practices
or those with poor attendance records? They could be concealing problems with
reading, writing and handling numbers.

Here
are some common examples: the experienced worker who doesn’t apply for a
supervisor job because he would have to write reports; the assembly operator
unable to cope with new quality assurance procedures because they require her
to make calculations and fill in charts; the employees who risk accidents
because they cannot understand health and safety information. All are to be
found among today’s workforce.  

An
estimated 7 million adults in the UK have literacy and numeracy levels below
those expected of an 11-year-old. Of these, 47 per cent are thought to be in
employment. Included in the overall figures are around half a million who
struggle with English because it is not their first language.

The
cost of poor basic skills in the workplace – in terms of reduced workforce
flexibility and inefficiency – has been put at £500,000 per annum per company
for companies in the UK employing 1,000 or more people. For industry and the
economy overall, this can add up to a staggering annual loss of £4.8bn.

Few
people are wholly illiterate or innumerate. Sixty per cent require only a
little learning to reach functional levels – and maximise their contribution to
business.

These
statistics have prompted the Skills for Life campaign launched in March by the
Department for Education and Skills (DfES) Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit to
engage employers in tackling basic skills issues in the workplace. This seeks
to raise awareness through national advertising and employer champions who have
supported the development of basic skills among their own employees.

A
national telephone advice line run by learndirect, will help employers wanting
to take part. The campaign promoted the Employer Toolkit (see box on right: How
to boost business skills), along with other materials and resources for use in
the workplace. Workplace basic skills advisers located in each local Learning
Skills Council (LSC) will supply employers with information on training
provision. This campaign will be a key element of the forthcoming Skills
Strategy announced recently by education secretary Charles Clarke,(see box on
page 12: How to improve basic skills).

Targets

The
Government’s target is to improve the basic skills of 1.5 million people by
2007 with an interim target of  750,000
improvements by 2004. Much is already happening through a range of  Regional Development Agency  (RDA-) and LSC-funded initiatives and
union-backed schemes. However, more needs to be done.

"There
are some large companies which are well aware 
of the need and are tackling it, but I believe it is also true that
there are many companies which don’t even consider they may have a problem – that
is an area where you have to raise the awareness," says Barbara Bicknell,
skills development manager at South East of England Development Agency.

Identifying
basic skills needs is the first hurdle. Understandably, employees are reluctant
to seek help, often preferring to conceal their shortcomings.

"There
is a stigma attached to it and people are worried about job security,"
says Christine Mills, learning and development adviser at BAA Heathrow Airport.
"If they want to get on and go for promotion, the last thing they will do
is come forward with any need around basic skills."

Working
in partnership with trade unions is one way forward. For three years BAA worked
with unions, in tackling basic skills with support from the Union Learning
Fund. Funding has now ceased, but the partnership continues. "We still
involve the unions in the design and development of basic skills training and
seek their comments, as they know staff members’ needs. We look to them to
encourage people to come forward and not be afraid," says Mills.

BAA
has helped 120 of its employees improve their basic skills through one-to-one
coaching and small- group work.  A
similar approach is working for a project being run with hospital workers in
Kent and Surrey. "We’re reaching and teaching people who wouldn’t be
taught in any other way," says Liz Duckworth, project manager of IT Break
into Health.

The
project is working with 260 learners, using IT as a vehicle to address literacy
and numeracy needs. "It’s different to the other provision going on in
hospitals at the moment, which is classroom style. Most of our people haven’t
been in a learning situation for many years, and with us they don’t have the
daunting problem of having to join a course of, say, 10 people, which takes a
lot of confidence," says Duckworth. This has resulted in many going on to
do other courses as they have built up not only competence, but confidence.

Right
environment

Creating
the right environment is critical to success in raising basic skills levels. If
people are given the opportunity to learn what they are interested in, progress
and feel comfortable with learning, they are more likely to face up to
shortfalls in their reading, writing and number skills.

Perkins
Engines opened a lifelong learning centre last year in partnership with Amicus.
More than 600 employees have been through programmes they choose, ranging from
wig-making to carpentry to foreign languages, and the number is growing daily.

"What
we’re trying to do is connect people to what would be inspirational to
them," says HR manager, Amanda Rawlings. "Now that they are quite
comfortable with the lifelong learning concept, we can build on it to start to
address particular issues we think there are in our business."

Estimates

Basic
skills is one such issue which Perkins is about to tackle. The company knows
there is a need for it but cannot estimate the extent. Rawlings explains:
"You never know how big an issue it is until you get people coming
forward. We would never force people into scenarios to reveal basic skills
needs, so the other option is to create a comfortable environment for people to
put their heads above the parapet."

The
way basic skills training opportunities are presented to the workforce will
affect the level of take-up and success. Evidence suggests that where provision
is specifically work-related, success will be less than where employees see
personal benefits. For example, well over 100 drivers at transport company
Stagecoach have completed courses in spoken English, written English and
arithmetic, delivered in company time by the Oxfordshire Workplace Basic Skills
project.

"To
make it more interesting to people, we made the training non-work
related," says Peter Hunt, training manager, South Midlands at Stagecoach.
"We had people coming to us for training for all sorts of reasons. One
driver simply said: ‘I want to be able to read a bedtime story to my son’ and
that’s fine," says Hunt. "But alongside meeting his personal needs,
the company is benefiting as his improved reading and writing skills have
boosted his work performance.

"I’m
getting drivers back from training who can add their cash together better, give
change better, read their running cards and write their reports better."
And it has helped staff retention, adds Hunt.

An
approach by an external provider proved to be the catalyst needed for major
basic skills training activity, which is delivering remarkable results at
engineering company Albright International in Whitchurch, Hampshire. HR manager
Alan Gilvear gave the go-ahead for Basingstoke College to set up a stand in the
canteen and talk to employees.

The
company put up notices throughout the premises and attached notices to pay
packets publicising the ‘roadshows’ – then stood back, allowing employees to
put their names forward to college staff with complete confidentiality.

It
made  a conscious decision not to have
any Albright staff present. "Because of the rather contentious nature of
the training offered, we felt we should genuinely keep out of it at that stage
and make it something being offered by a local provider for the benefit of the
staff," Gilvear explains. "I think it helped draw a few people out by
deliberately taking a back seat."

Managers
were staggered when out of a workforce of 260, 80 put their names forward for
training in literacy, numeracy, basic IT or English for Speakers of Other
Languages (ESOL). A training-needs analysis had failed to uncover such needs.
Of these, some 60 were identified as having needs which could be met by the
training on offer.

A
staged programme was put together across the company, based on priority of
needs and carefully organised to fit in with production requirements.
Importantly, the company agreed to refer to the programme as ‘essential skills’
to remove any stigma attached to the word ‘basic’. All the training is
conducted by college staff on the company’s premises in company time.

"We
found it important to conduct the training wholly in company time as we felt we
needed to show our commitment to the individuals concerned," says Gilvear.
The exact nature of training being undertaken by each individual is kept
confidential.

Releasing
staff has been the company’s only cost, but the benefits have been great.
Nearly half of the first cohort undertook ESOL training. "Seven per cent
of our workforce have come from abroad," Gilvear explains. "Although
they have good skills they were not optimising their performance in our
business because of language barriers. ESOL has made dramatic improvements in
this area."

Enthusiasm

Communication
and the utilisation of competent staff have both improved greatly and three of
the basic skills trainees have gained promotion. Some have enrolled on
learndirect courses. Despite the initial reluctance of some supervisors,
trainees’ enthusiasm and the success of the programme has now encouraged
supervisors to release staff for other training.

"Any
suspicion of training of all types has been removed, as staff can see that
we’re prepared to offer training and enhance their skills for their benefit,"
says Gilvear. The initiative is not only helping staff retention, but word of
the company’s support has got out and, in an area of just 0.6 per cent
unemployment, Albright’s reputation for providing basic skills training is
easing recruitment problems by making the company an employer of choice.

Gilvear
has some words of advice to training professionals. "Go and find out about
your basic skills levels. I guarantee that you have more staff than you think
who have difficulty with basic skills. I can also guarantee that they are not
going to come forward and tell you so.

"This
is harming your communication channels, reducing staff involvement,
under-utilising staff, holding back flexibility and reducing your net
profit," he warns.

Basic
skills blackspots

Literacy
         

City
of Kingston-upon-Hull – 29.6%
West Midlands – 27.9%
Tyne and Wear – 27.5%
Durham – 27.3%
Merseyside – 27%

Numeracy

City
of Kingston-upon-Hull – 31.7%
West Midlands – 29.7%
Tyne and Wear – 29%
Durham – 28.9%
Merseyside – 28.7%

Key
Percentage of people in England aged 16-60 with poor basic skills. National
average: Literacy: 24%, numeracy: 24%

How
to boost basic skills


Create a comfortable learning environment


Respond to individual personal needs


Offer one-to-one or small group training


Make training non work-related


Maintain confidentiality


Provide training on company premises


Allow training to happen in company time


Select a provider sensitive to your needs

Further
information

www.dfes.gov.uk/readwriteplus/employer_toolkit

www.dfes.gov.uk/skillsstrategy

National
strategy to improve skills

On
26 March, Education Secretary Charles Clarke set out the Government’s vision to
boost the skills and productivity of England’s workforce, known as the Skills
Strategy Progress Report. Further details are expected to be released in June.
The report has identified key areas for reform which will contribute to
delivering the strategy’s objectives :


Secondary education – to tackle underachievement


Vocational offerings – post-16 – to develop the vocational route through Modern
Apprenticeships and Foundation Degrees


Adult basic skills – the Government has pledged to ensure adults develop the
skills they need to progress further in learning


Further Education – to drive up standards and strengthen capacity of colleges
to build links with employers


Higher Education – through a White Paper which includes the expansion of
foundation degrees in vocational areas and close contacts between higher
education and employers


Releasing staff for training – which are being tested through Employer Training
Pilots


Regional skills priorities – identified by Frameworks for Regional Employment
and Skills Action  

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