Mind the gap

In the second part of our series on skills needs and forecasts, Alison Thomas looks at how employers are dealing with the mismatch between the output of the education system, efforts in vocational training and the skills and knowledge they require from their staff

This is how Victoria Gill, learning, training and development adviser of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), evaluates current trends. However, it is not just with their own staff that organisations need to think strategically. As the Government rolls out its Skills Strategy and introduces more flexibility to the 14-19 curriculum, employers are being asked both to drive the agenda and play a full part in implementing it.

How employers respond will determine how well we face up to the challenges ahead. For improving education and training does not in itself guarantee higher productivity.

According to research conducted by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), although more people today have qualifications, these are not always relevant to the needs of particular occupations.

“There is often a mismatch between the output of the education system and the kind of skills, knowledge and experience demanded by employers,” says LSDA chief executive Chris Hughes.

Addressing this issue is one of the Government’s top priorities. But is there not a contradiction between its avowed aim of raising the profile of vocational learning and its commitment to increasing the number of undergraduates?

Modern apprenticeships

Lynn Williams, national officer in charge of productivity and training at the union Amicus, fully supports the 50 per cent target, provided that not all students go to university straight from school. Instead he favours the pathway of Modern Apprenticeships, which can potentially lead to a foundation degree for those who show promise.

“Lots of pupils lose interest in education during adolescence and regret it later. I know – I was one of them.” he explains. “This way offers them the chance to manage their own pace of development and earn money at the same time.

“Mature people understand what work is about and know what direction they want to take,” he adds.

Modern Apprenticeships in sectors such as engineering were first introduced in 1995, and they are now being expanded into new areas such as childcare and customer service. But is this really the best way forward?

“Drop-out rates have attracted some bad press,” says Gill, “but when there is serious employer buy-in they can be very good.

“When students do get stranded, employers have to look at how the individual feels and where they think their talents lie, then find a way of transposing that into the workplace. That requires quite sophisticated thinking.”

Incorporating Learning

Williams agrees. “In my day I carried around the boss’s toolbox. That won’t do any more,” he says. “Employers must offer variety and incorporate the learning into the job. If people feel they are moving forwards and upwards their interest will be sustained.”

The combination of formal education and practical experience is also valued in the retail sector, although the circumstances are very different. Sandwich courses are becoming increasingly popular with students and employers alike, while in-house management trainee programmes, lasting up to 24 months, introduce graduates to the reality of how the business operates at every level and in every department.

Peter McLaren-Kennedy, head of communications at Skillsmart Retail, believes that this is reasonably effective. The picture is not so rosy at entry level however.

“We are not a sector of choice, yet people of ability who are willing to work can start in store and get ahead quite quickly,” he says. “We are not good at promoting this. We also fail to nurture part-time staff who would be an asset if they were encouraged to stay and develop.”

Training interventions

As most retailers prefer their own training interventions to government programmes, Skillsmart is reviewing these to make them more relevant. “We are trying to devise a framework for Modern Apprenticeships that will allow people to transfer from one area to another, something which the previous version did not do,” he says.

“We are also introducing a theoretical element to the qualification. Above all, we are shifting the focus subtly from knowledge acquired to the learning process.”

Sharon Copland-Jones, personnel director of Shepherd Construction, believes that the learning process is vital in a world of rapid change and is dismayed to note how many young people fail to grasp this.

“People coming out of the education system seem to have lost their interest and drive,” she says. “They are also not good at identifying their own strengths and building on them.”

Copland-Jones applies this criticism across the board, including graduates. “Our operational colleagues actually prefer 16-18-year-olds that they can mould,” she says.

“Graduates tend to have aspirations beyond their true competence and are reluctant to get to grips with how each trade works. This does not apply to them all and we have some real stars, but not as many as in the past.”

Shepherd Construction is actively involved in education, from supporting student builders on day release to sponsoring undergraduates and collaborating with universities to provide course content, guest speakers, site visits and work placements.

Joined-up thinking

The company sets great store by such partnerships, yet at school level it has experienced frustration.

“We have tried to engage schools through competitions, challenges and other initiatives,” she says. “The trouble is, they are bombarded by employers, all trying to get them involved, and they have so many other things to do, no one has time to commit. We have to come up with a more joined-up system which allows us to connect with schools on a more permanent basis, leading to better mutual understanding and appreciation.”

She is concerned that a similar lack of cohesion could jeopardise current government initiatives, as so many parties are involved, each with its own agenda. However, she believes the Skills Strategy and the proposals for a Baccalaureat-style diploma have much to commend them and is also complimentary about the work of her SSC.

Williams is equally positive. “If the Government has done one thing well, it is identifying the skills agenda,” he says. “All we need now is for more employers to get involved.”

Modern apprenticeships fire enthusiasm

“My qualifications are recognised nationally and through them I not only gain increased confidence in my work, but career development opportunities as well.” So says 20-year-old Royal Mail employee Vicki Clement, who recently completed a Modern Apprenticeship in Customer Service and is now moving on to a higher level. Statistics suggest that others share her enthusiasm. Of the 421 16 to 21-year-olds who have taken up a Modern Apprenticeship since the organisation introduced the qualification 15 months ago, only 20 have fallen by the wayside because they left the business for pastures new. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 staff over 25 are preparing NVQs.

Qualifications and skills manager Sally Timmins believes that the new training structure has made a significant difference to levels of service and individuals’ awareness of skills. The figures back up her assessment. Performance and customer service targets are being met, staff turnover has fallen and there are more applicants for new posts.

“We may not offer the best money, but qualifications and a career path are important to people,” she says.

Intec Business Colleges is responsible for assessment, training and verification and Timmins’ role is to manage the process. She keeps a very tight control. “Everything is driven by what we as the employer want and the needs and desires of individuals,” she says.

“Developing people is essential to maintain a competent workforce. Both we and our customers expect more and more of staff. The least we can do is provide them with the skills and tools they need.”

‘Get ahead’ scheme delivers

Two-and-a-half years ago a staff attitude survey conducted by the Greene King Pub Company picked up dissatisfaction with training provision and the lack of a progressive learning route. For training controller Simon Burton this represented a major challenge in an organisation that employs 10,000 people in 600 pubs and hotels organised into four distinct divisions.

“One of my biggest concerns was communication,” he says. “We restructured our training and remarketed it, giving it a brand name and publishing attractive brochures and literature to make it more appealing.”

The result was ‘Get Ahead’, a flexible training and career package which lays out clearly defined routes of progression, including a programme incorporating NVQ levels 2 and 3. Although participation is voluntary, since its launch in June 2002, 600 people in more than half of the company’s pubs have enrolled on NVQ programmes and 150 have already gained qualifications.

In evaluating its impact, he measures not only hard figures such as sales and staff retention, but emotional engagement too, through consultative forums and one-to-one reviews. A quality audit survey by training provider the Hotel and Catering Training Company (HCTC) also reveals an 85 per cent satisfaction rate with the quality of training and equally high levels of motivation.

For the past two years the Greene King Pub Company has won the Publican Award for best managed house business and Burton has no doubt that ‘Get Ahead’ played a major part in this success.

“Five years ago I struggled to get people to sign up for courses,” he says. “That has changed significantly as they see the benefits and spread the word.”

Passport to the right skills

Like all Sector Skills Councils,E-skills UK (the communications, IT and call centre skills council) is employer-led and the board comprises a mixture of specialists like IBM and T-Mobile, heavy weight companies like Sainsbury’s and John Lewis and SMEs. It caters not only for IT professionals but IT users too, in keeping with the Government’s policy of adding this to the core skills of numeracy and literacy

“The issue we have identified is the discrepancy between supply and demand,” explains project director Martin Harvey. “At the moment people note on their CVs that they have certain skills such as word processing, but how proficient are they? Even if they have qualifications, employers don’t understand what these represent.”

In response, E-skills UK is devising an e-skills passport, a web-based service based on a framework of 14 techniques, all defined in jargon-free terms. The first phase, a self-assessment facility which can be regularly updated, was launched in November.

By March, individuals will be able to compare their own skills profiles with those of jobs they aspire to, identify the gaps, and track down appropriate training solutions.

The final piece will fall into place later in the year when external verification becomes available.

Initial feedback from early adopters reveals significant gains to training budgets, as companies now target their interventions more effectively. Some also report a bonus as they have uncovered skills they did not know they possessed.

Harvey believes these commercial benefits and insights will be of paramount importance to the scheme’s chances of success.

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