Government training support – untangling access

Key training initiatives outside Train to Gain

Group Training Associations: provide groups of local employers with training funded by a variety of sources, including government grants.

National Apprenticeships Service: will take overall responsibility for the delivery of apprenticeships in April, including matching employers with would-be apprentices.

National Employer Service: offers specialist advice about workforce development to organisations with more than 5,000 employees.

National Skills Academies: A network of 10 academies that cover everything from construction to hospitality. They give employers direct influence over types of training for their sector.

Sector Skills Councils: identify the skill priorities for 25 different sectors of the economy, providing input on training provision.

The Skills Pledge: launched following the Leitch report, is a voluntary commitment by employers to train staff in basic skills and competencies related to their business.

Training in a tangle

Confused about government training provision? Then you are in good company. A select committee of MPs suggests that only “a few civil servants and a handful of academics” are probably able to fathom it out.

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSSC) report on skills and training policy implementation warns that the situation will probably get worse when the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is abolished next year. Youth services will be transferred to local authorities and the adult functions taken over by the new Skills Funding Agency.

John Lucas, policy adviser on education and skills at British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), believes that reforming the existing system would have been better. “We have had something like five different institutions providing the services that the LSC provides now over the past 20 years. It is going to get worse for the next year to eighteen months,” he warns.

Risk to intellectual capital

Dr John McGurk, skills adviser to the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), describes the situation as a ‘paradox of simplification‘, saying the danger of abolishing organisations like the LSC is the loss or dispersal of their intellectual capital.

Lord Tony Young, the minister for skills and apprenticeships, admits the changeover will be challenging, but says the end justifies the means. “What we’re looking for is a more streamlined and responsive system through the new Skills Funding Agency where it is better able to respond to employer demands.”

He argues that the recession, together with the findings of the Leitch report - which warned of long-term economic decline unless skill levels were upgraded - make the case for a cultural shift in training provision overwhelming. “Training in a downturn is vitally important. You’re two-and-a-half times more likely to fail if you abandon it.”

Young accepts that there is confusion but says actions based on recommendations from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills are addressing this. These include the idea of ‘hiding the wiring’ so businesses no longer have to deal with the perceived complexities of the system. “They want a one-stop shop, so that if you’ve got training needs, we will put you in touch with someone who will define what your needs are, identify the learning provider and so on,” he explains.

Train to Gain

As a result, from April the LSC’s flagship Train to Gain service, which is the main interface for government training schemes, will be integrated with Business Link, which provides access to a portfolio of government support products for business. According to Chris Banks, chair of the LSC, this will provide users with “a simple way through the system.”

Young claims that training provision generally is becoming more demand-led. “We’re not just adapting to a changing economy but trying to ensure that we adapt to what employers want, not what we think they want.”

One example of this more flexible approach is the way £350m is being targeted at small and medium’sized organisations over the next two years so they can access skills training that does not necessarily lead to a qualification. By 2011, the current Train to Gain budget will have swelled from £520m to £1bn as other new schemes such as £2,500 ‘golden hellos’ for employers that recruit and train long-term unemployed people come on stream.

Level 2 achievements

Since April, 2006, when Train to Gain was set up, 242,000 employees in England have gained a qualification at NVQ Level 2. Although this falls well short of the 350,000 target set by skills secretary John Denham for the end of 2008, Young remains upbeat. “The figures we have show that 570,000 employees in England have got training and 291,000 have achieved a qualification. If we constantly report this in terms of failure, I don’t think we’re doing ourselves justice.”

However Lee Hopley, head of economic policy for the employers’ organisationEEF, believes a key problem is poor communication. “Changes that have been made to funding eligibility have not been as well communicated to employers as they could have been. Train to Gain is a much wider service than simply funding an employee’s first level-two qualification, but that message has not really reached a lot of employers.”

Reclaim costs

A similar complaint comes from the Federation of Small Businesses, whose research among 1,300 members found that only 5% were aware they could reclaim wage costs through Train to Gain when their employees received training.

John Herman, managing director of Intec Business Colleges, which trains about 3,000 people a year on government training schemes, claims Train to Gain’s brokerage service, through which employers receive advice, is unnecessarily complicated. He says the way brokers are obliged to recommend several training providers to employers illustrates the problem. “The company then has to interview four or five to find out which one to use. This is time-consuming and they can simply get fed up jumping through all these hoops and negotiating all these hurdles.”

But Banks believes the need for impartiality should take precedence, saying employers would rather have a broker focused on their specific needs than one trying to promote any particular training provider. He adds that publicity about training provision now focuses on Train to Gain as the first point of contact, leaving brokers to clear up any confusion about what is available.

According to Young, satisfaction with brokers is more than 80%, and he believes this is likely to rise following a commitment to ensure they all gain an accredited qualification.

In addition, standards are being drawn up to ensure that all training providers have an accredited qualification as well. “A number of employers have said that it’s not good enough to throw training at a problem it has to be training that they need and is accredited,” Young says.

Such reform will be welcomed by Colin Snape, HR manager of Somerset-based logistics company Langdon Industries, who describes his experience of accessing training funding as a farce.

“Our people were getting bits of paper and not getting any training from it,” he says. “The providers are lining their pockets. I stopped it when I saw I was not getting anything from it.”

Public sector

In the public sector, there are doubts about how effective some of the initiatives will be. Deb Clarke, joint HR director of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and its local primary care trust, says there is no sector skills council specifically covering local government jobs, even though one in five UK employees works in the public sector. “Employers, including government departments and the NHS, really need to be encouraged in a coherent way around the skills agenda so skills development is tailored to what employers need,” she argues.

Although a series of commitments have been made to apprenticeships across the public sector, Clarke believes provision would be far more effective if it was done collectively. “In my view it requires us to think strategically and have a coherent view across the public sector.”

Focus on apprentieships

Some attempts at reform may end up proving counter-productive simply by adding to the confusion. Banks promises that the launch of the National Apprentice Service in April will bring together several initiatives to create “real focus on continuing growth of apprenticeships”. An online system where employers can advertise apprenticeship vacancies is also planned.

But McGurk says a CIPD report, due to be published in April, will show that the level of understanding among HR professionals about the simplified apprenticeship agenda is low. “These are the people who make it happen, but when there’s a blizzard of initiatives it’s difficult as a professional to keep up with every one of them.”

As the recession increasingly takes its toll on jobs, new training initiatives and reform provide government with a visible way of taking action. The danger, critics such as McGurk and Lucaswarn, is that it could end up adding to the confusion in the process.

Top tips on accessing training provision

Chris Banks, chair of the Learning and Skills Council, says the simplest advice is to contact the Train to Gain service. “If you access it that way, you can talk about apprenticeships, NVQs, ESOL [English for speakers of other languages] or whatever it is you are looking for. Phone 0800 0155545 or go to the website www.traintogain.gov.uk.

John Lucas, policy adviser for the British Chambers of Commerce, says monitoring the changes resulting from scrapping the LSC next year will be vital. “HR professionals should keep an eye on the ball to see what happens and identify who are the key contacts in their regional and sector-specific areas.”

Lord Tony Young, minister for skills and apprenticeships, says Group Training Associations are a good way for smaller employers to access the most appropriate training for staff and management. “We have over 100 and are looking to encourage more.”

Dr John McGurk, CIPD skills adviser, says its factsheet on the government’s skills agenda gives the big picture that will help put individual schemes in context. “The aim is to educate CIPD members about the complex and ever changing skills agenda.”