News that not a single employer has, so far, signed up to the skills pledge, as recommended by the Leitch Review last December, suggests the government faces an uphill battle in persuading businesses to commit themselves to such an undertaking.
Leitch proposed that organisations should commit to ensuring all their staff are trained to at least an NVQ level 2 qualification or equivalent as a way of lifting the general skills level among the UK’s workforce. Should this commitment from employers not be forthcoming by 2010, Leitch advocates introducing some kind of legal compulsion, effectively forcing employers to comply.
But it’s still early days. And more positive news is expected when Sir Digby Jones, the skills envoy for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), launches his skills pledge implementation plan in mid-June.
Jones is said to be currently signing up employers to the pledge. Many of these companies are expected to be unveiled next month while a total of 19 central government departments have already committed to the scheme ensuring that about half a million civil servants are covered by the pledge.
But if the pledge is to gain widespread support from employers, what kinds of things will they want to see in Jones’s plan?
At EEF, an employers’ representative body for the manufacturing and engineering sector, education and skills policy adviser Claire Donovan believes the plan needs to incorporate a number of points.
First, any training should be demand-led and similar to the Train to Gain initiative where the training is matched to employer’s needs.
This, says Donovan, can be achieved by moving away from whole job qualifications where trainees have to complete a rigidly-set syllabus to obtain a qualification. This often results in employees training in areas not relevant to their job.
“People’s jobs aren’t reflected in one syllabus,” she said.
More preferable is a flexible system of unitisation where trainees can choose to study different modules pertinent to the skills they require in the workplace and that collectively count towards a recognised qualification.
Donovan also wants to see greater recognition for informal on-the-job learning. “If this can be recognised and count towards the pledge, then more employers will be interested,” she said.
This is also a factor in the retail sector, according to Beverley Paddey, head of standards and qualifications at Skillsmart, the Sector Skills Council for the retail industry.
She says the big supermarkets chains such as Tesco, Sainbury’s and Asda are currently working with the national regulator to get accreditation for their on-the-job training.
“This will keep trainings costs down – an important issue in retail,” said Paddey.
But at the British Chambers of Commerce policy adviser Louise Potter feels the much-publicised pledge is nothing more than a gimmick and an irrelevance to her members.
“It’s just a badge for the government’s attempts to up-skill the workforce and something small employers aren’t interested in,” she said.
And while Potter lauds the government’s success in introducing the Train to Gain programme and the Qualification and Curriculum Authority’s work on the unitisation of qualifications, she feels these initiatives need to become established before employers can really benefit from them. This, she says, is unlikely to be in time for the 2010 pledge deadline.
She said: “The timings are out. These two major flagship schemes will take several years to bed down before people can take advantage of them.”
Potter added: “The government should be using its resources telling people about the reforms it is implementing rather than waving threats about levies around.”