Government training schemes: small firms’ training needs are misunderstood

Government training schemes are often inappropriate for small firms, says The Work Foundation’s Susannah Constable. They need to be linked to business goals.

When the UK’s skills performance compares badly against international comparators who gets the blame? Often small firms are near the top of the list. They neglect skills development. They won’t take part in the government’s ever-morphing array of training initiatives. They prefer the university of hard knocks to recognised qualifications. And so on.

It may be crude, but the message is pervasive. It is also essentially misguided. What it misses is any fine-grained understanding of the reality of life inside smaller organisations and the particular types of demand for skills they have.

When The Work Foundation looked in detail at skill demands in small and medium-sized firms, we found some small firms do indeed ‘do training’ – both in the accredited, technical sense and in the looser sense of staff development and teambuilding. Some had called in external consultants to help them improve their staff development processes others had made incremental changes to their more fluid training offers and several had braved the baroque infrastructure of government funding to help them do so. What was clear was that these small firms understand very well that training can help answer business problems.

Some of this activity is unquestionably hard to capture in central measurement systems. More fundamentally, though, the charge against small firms on skills fails to grapple with the ad hoc quality of working life in many smaller organisations.

Work in these firms is not driven by grand-sounding mantras like ‘improving the bottom-line’ or striving for ‘high performance’. It is subject to quicker and greater highs and lows, with more immediate consequences. For small organisations, ‘performance’ is expressed in terms of operating well, getting the right staff and extending the local customer base.

Yet, training is often sold as a performance or bottom line issue. It would have much greater resonance among the population of small firms if it was linked to the specific, immediate business issues they face from retention to absence to customer satisfaction to local reputation – what you might call operational effectiveness.

Pitching a message about training in ways that seem relevant to small firms would be a major first step in encouraging more of them to do more of it.

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