Back to basics

The examples are endless. A care worker with poor writing skills will struggle to compile patient reports an employee uneasy about calculating weights and volumes won’t put orders together correctly and the manager lacking knowledge of odds and probability will fall short on risk management.

Not only does this hamper the performance of the employees concerned, but the cost of basic skills deficits to business is astronomical. Functional illiteracy and innumeracy cost the UK some £10bn a year in lost revenue, according to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), so the future looks far from bright.

Last year, the government commissioned an independent review of the state of UK skills. The interim findings of the Leitch Review projected that, by 2020, six million adults in the UK will not meet the literacy standards of an 11-year-old, while 12 million will not have the same level of numeracy skills.

No industry is immune to the skills crisis, and it is not a problem restricted to entry- and low-level occupations either.

“We know that people develop coping mechanisms that enable them to get along in higher-level positions – devolving to certain people in their teams, for example,” says Anita Hallam, Skills for Life group manager at the LSC.

Of course, this is nothing new. Employers have decried the level of basic skills in the British workforce for years. Most recently, a report by the CBI published last summer highlighted that one in three employers must send staff to remedial training on skills they failed to learn in school.

In response to employer demands, the LSC launched the ‘Train to Gain’ initiative, and has been running pilot employer training schemes for the past 18 months, whereby local LSC offices help employers to identify their skills needs and invest in appropriate training.

Attractive proposition

For smaller organisations, one of the attractions of the Train to Gain scheme is that they may qualify for a contribution to wage costs. For hospitality staff supplier Gilds Associates, this was critical to getting employees to take up basic skills training, according to area manager Fiona Lavery.

Gilds has some 6,000 temporary staff on its books awaiting job placements, but all must complete and pass relevant technical training before being taken on and placed.

Candidates often failed the training due to a lack of basic skills. That meant a reduced talent pool as well as wasted money and effort on training. Gilds found a training provider through the LSC and increased its pass rate, saving money out of HR’s budget in the process.

The company offers incentives, including mini radios, calculators and pen sets to entice workers into training, but also to say congratulations for passing.

At Royal Mail, making training convenient was a key element in its success.

“We’ve made it easy for staff by choosing the college and bringing it on site for them,” says head of workplace learning, Jackie Lawlor.

“All the signing up, the needs assessment and the learning is done at their place of work. We expect people to do this in their own time, but we arrange for the tutors to come in either just before a shift or after it has finished. People will give up two hours.”

Over the past 18 months, Royal Mail has established learning centres in four of its large mail centres, and its union learning representatives encourage and support employees to do the courses. So far, 800 employees have done training.

How the learning is pitched can make or break whether employees take to it. That is why it is important employers are sensitive to the stigma many people feel in relation to basic skills needs, says Lawlor. HR should take care to ensure an inclusive approach, not accentuating the negative in promoting training nor suggesting that employees are deficient in some way, she adds.

Skills for life

For Royal Mail, that meant taking the ‘basic’ out of basic skills and using the term ‘skills for life’ instead. The company also uses learning programmes that combine literacy and numeracy with other skills areas, particularly IT.

“If you say: ‘Come and improve your English’, that’s not appealing,” explains Lawlor. “But if you say: ‘Come and learn how to use a computer and build up your communication skills’, that’s very appealing.”

It’s about bringing staff into learning through different routes, says Carol Taylor, joint interim director of the Basic Skills Agency, which advises employers to incorporate basic skills provision within vocational and other training.

“Embedding basic skills is showing much better returns than discrete basic skills training in the workplace,” she explains.

It also encourages individuals to see literacy and numeracy as stepping stones to further skills training.

Hallam says: “There are links between low levels of basic skills and low levels of softer skills such as customer handling, verbal communications, teamwork and problem solving. The two do go together. Personal confidence is the link.”

Know your customer

Fast-food giant McDonald’s has had great success in introducing basic skills training. In September, the fast-food firm launched ‘Our Lounge’, a training website that also offers lifestyle advice and activities for employees. It is non-corporate in its tone and colour, and reflects McDonald’s overwhelmingly youthful workforce – 60% of whom are under 21. So far more than 500 staff have signed up for basic training.

The secret, concludes McDonald’s UK’s vice-president (people) David Fairhurst, is simple consumer marketing.

“Understand your customers and make sure you’re designing it around them. Invest time in engaging the people that are the end user,” he advises.

The final findings of the Leitch Review are due to be published before the end of the year. Whatever its recommendations, employers should start now to improve the basic skills of their workforce.

Leitch Review: interim findings

  • Some skills levels have improved – the proportion of adults with a degree has increased from one-fifth to more than one-quarter of the population over the past decade.

  • More than one-third of adults in the UK do not have a basic school-leaving qualification – double the proportion of Canada and Germany.

  • Five million people have no qualifications at all.

  • One in six adults does not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, and half do not have that level of numeracy.

Click here for more information and to see the final report

Look out for a special UK skills issue of Personnel Today, in association with Skills for Business, on 2 January

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