Aiming for future perfect

When planning ahead, employers must understand not only their imminent skills needs, but also the gamut of changing attitudes to learning. In the first of a two-part series, Alison Thomas looks at how organisations are winning over hearts and minds

What sort of skills will we need in the future? How will we achieve an appropriate balance between vocational and academic learning? What role should employers play, and will the trend towards more employer-based training continue to grow?

These are just some of the questions posed by Learning from the Future, a new report by the Tomorrow Project in conjunction with the Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Starting from a detailed analysis of the status quo, it hypothesises on how learning and skills might evolve over the next 20 years in four scenarios reflecting varying levels of government investment and regulation.

One issue it raises is the danger of neglecting vital ‘old economy’ skills in pursuit of those demanded by the knowledge economy. Another is the importance of reducing the substantial number of low-paid, low-skilled, low-productivity jobs that threaten the nation’s prosperity. This may be difficult to achieve, according to Victoria Gill, learning, training and development adviser of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“You can train and train, but if people don’t get the chance to use their new skills in the workplace it won’t make any difference. That is where the crux of the problem lies,” she says.

Encouraging low-skilled staff to raise their game is high on the government agenda. Hence its new policy of offering adults free learning to gain level 2 or level 3 qualifications in priority sectors and regions. It is also encouraging employers to train low-skilled members of staff through Employer Training Pilots. The interim report on this initiative, which came out in December, was encouraging.

“The high take-up and low drop-out rates of targeted businesses have surpassed expectations and set an excellent precedent for the future,” says Mark Haysom, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council.

We still have a long way to go however, and one of the greatest challenges will be engaging the interest of the persistently long tail of low-achieving school leavers. It is easy to blame the education system, but there are other factors too. Most of these young people come from disadvantaged backgrounds and families with a long history of resistance to formal education.

Moreover, they belong to the visual generation reared on sophisticated modern media. A traditional classroom lesson cannot compete with flashy computer games and slick pop videos. ‘It’s boring’ is a familiar refrain.

Their aversion to conventional learning also stems from a sense of failure according to Mike Norman, managing director of Reed Learning, which has recently designed and delivered courses to people in prison. “We avoid traditional techniques and focus instead on what I call ‘education by stealth’,” he says. For example, a cookery lesson incorporates elements of maths, and an IT course teaches basic numeracy and literacy without drawing attention to the learner’s low skills. Above all, it has to be relevant. “If they can see that what they are doing is going to help them, they will be a lot keener to learn,” he explains.

Whether Reed Learning is improving the skills of prison inmates or training the professional staff of corporate clients, individual needs lie at the heart of its approach. This is becoming increasingly important in an age when the consumer is king – what Learning from the Future dubs the ‘must-fit- me’ world. It is also a consequence of the move away from the paternalistic ‘jobs for life’ culture to a different model where learners take responsibility for managing their own careers. Companies that respond by offering abundant opportunities to develop and progress are rewarded by loyalty according to a study entitled Great Expectations. Understanding the Motivation of Young Workers published in October by Siemens and The Work Foundation.

“They see it as future-proofing their CV,” explains Peter Merrick, director of corporate personnel at Siemens UK. “It may seem a high-risk strategy, but paradoxically, the more you equip people to leave, the more likely they are to stay.”

New recruits also identified the intrinsic quality of work and the brand values of the organisation as significant employer attributes.

On the downside, glossy brochures and glamorous open days that fail to deliver on their promise lead to high levels of attrition. Another problem Siemens noted was a communication gap between senior and middle managers. “In a sense this has always been the case, but it’s important to be aware of it and try to address it,” says Merrick.

Attracting, developing and retaining the best people will be critical as global competition hots up and the talent pool shrinks. Siemens takes this very seriously, so much so that it has a special Talent Management Board, whose role is to give this a strategic direction, and put the matrix in place to measure it.

“The capability, performance and customer focus of the workforces in our various divisions are the key differentiators between us and our competitors,” he explains.

Most employers would agree. But how many of them translate the rhetoric into action?

A model for tomorrow?

Two years ago, Shajahan Miah of Tower Hamlets left school with poor GCSE grades. Today, he is a trainee desktop analyst at the headquarters of the HSBC bank at Canary Wharf, where he provides IT support. He owes this remarkable achievement to an award-winning programme launched by Deloitte in partnership with HSBC, Vodafone, News International, Morgan Stanley, SHL Group, Lewisham College and the Learning and Skills Council London East. Called ‘e-skills4industry’, it is designed to give under-achieving youngsters from disadvantaged communities the skills, qualifications and experience they need to secure entry-level IT positions.

Thirty students took part in the pilot, which combined work experience with a college course designed to meet the specific needs of sponsoring firms. Shajahan is one of 14 participants who went on to secure a permanent post. The remaining 16 are now in full-time education.

The benefits to the students are plain, but what is in it for the company?

“When we launched it, it was one way of tackling staff shortages created by the dotcom boom,” says Richard Stone, director of community investment (pictured above, seated). “That is no longer the case, but the focus on employability is our way of making a contribution to the local community. We also gain recognition from the wider community, clients and our own people.”

Independent evaluation reports confirm the effectiveness of the scheme, which is now being rolled out in eight locations across the country. Moreover, Deloitte and Tower Hamlets LEA have secured government funding to transfer the model into the retail sector.

In January 2004, courses will begin at three London colleges, followed by paid work placements with leading organisations such as Boots, Debenhams and Selfridges.

“The pilot has provided evidence that the model works. We now want to test it in terms of scale,” says Stone. “The challenge is to plan for the longer term and see how it could be mainstreamed.”

Powerful learning tool

“It was extraordinary. Graduates flew in from around the world and two days later, they were digging three tons of gravel to lay a path 150 metres long and building a ropes course for a disabled children’s school. The daunting nature of the challenge was one of the most compelling aspects. On arriving on site, some were convinced they didn’t have a hope. But once they’d succeeded, they turned round and said: “Look what we have done!”

Hamish Wilson of Impact Development Training Group is describing a social action programme he facilitated for Deutsche Bank. Working in teams of 50, 200 graduates from more than 20 countries undertook simultaneous three-day projects to provide new facilities in eight community centres across the UK as part of the company’s graduate development programme.

Wilson believes the benefits of such schemes go far beyond the tangible outcomes. For the organisation, these include alignment with its organisational corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, ethical investment, reputation management, staff retention and development. For the participants, the learning experience is uniquely powerful and it breaks down barriers between the corporation and the community to the advantage of all.

“When a senior HR professional is painting a mural alongside a homeless person, a graduate from Africa and another from South America, that’s when preconceptions are shattered and bridges begin to be built,” he says.

As the social action programme manager of a pioneering company in this field, Wilson is delighted that more organisations are recognising its remarkable potential as an innovative learning vehicle that has multiple synergies with CSR and beyond. However, he warns of potential dangers if vulnerable communities are exploited for corporate gain. “It’s not like building a raft or watching a PowerPoint presentation,” he says. “People are not commodities. It has to be facilitated with integrity.”

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