Since the Skills Pledge was launched 10 months ago, uptake has been relatively low. Could it be the government has set its sights too low?
The government launched the Skills Pledge on 14 June 2007 as part of its continuing effort to raise skills and, hopefully, productivity in the UK to the levels attained by competitors such as the US, France and Germany.
Any organisation can make the pledge to support those employees who need to develop basic literacy and numeracy skills, with a view to achieving a full Level 2 qualification, equivalent to five good GCSEs. It is supposed to act as a corporate statement of intent and a gateway to subsidised training through Train to Gain. But there’s no compulsion from the powers that be to ensure the pledge is acted upon.
Nevertheless, it is an important government initiative, but one that has been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm from much of the business world. This is shown by the numbers: the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which runs the pledge, says so far fewer than 1,300 organisations have signed it.
In theory that covers more than three million employees, but many of those will have at least a Level 2 qualification so it is irrelevant to them.
But it seems as though the government is listening to feedback and may be prepared to amend the pledge to make it more useful to the business community and the country as a whole.
John McGurk, skills adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), believes the government could be doing more to make companies aware of the pledge. He says: “Only 13% of CIPD members told our 2008 Learning and Development (ITALS) survey that they have signed the Skills Pledge, while around 37% said they would consider doing so. This suggests that it’s not being communicated very well.”
However, he says 25% of members say their employer is using the Train to Gain service and 23% have put an increased emphasis on literacy and numeracy. This could indicate that the aims of the pledge are being realised anyway.
Heather Ker, founder of Better Writing: Better Business, a web-based operation that offers business writing skills, says poor communication is limiting uptake of the pledge.
“On a national scale there are too few companies making the Skills Pledge for it to be making a real difference. The main obstacle is that many employers are not aware that the government will be paying for most of the training costs. There has been no real campaign and the lack of information has resulted in a series of negative Chinese whispers.”
She adds: “The government needs to engage with employers throughout the UK and ensure they are fully aware of the Skills Pledge and the benefits it can bring. I do not believe the vast majority of businesses are aware of it.”
Indeed, there appears to be a degree of resentment among employers who feel that the pledge is a way for the government to absolve itself of responsibility for the population’s basic education. All would agree that basic numeracy, literacy and IT skills are important, but see teaching of them as the job of schools, not companies.
Although poor communication has played a part, the real problem for the Skills Pledge is that it addresses only the most basic learning needs.
Linda Florance, chief executive of Skillfast-UK, the sector skills council for fashion and textiles, says: “While the overall concept of a Skills Pledge may be a reasonable one, its actual content is flawed because it focuses on delivering government targets for qualifications, rather than focusing on delivering the skills that industry needs.
“The current Skills Pledge has been designed to encourage employers to train people at the most basic level. In industries with large numbers of unskilled or semi-skilled workers, helping employers to address skills needs at the lowest level may make a big difference to efficiency and productivity. Unfortunately, in the fashion and textiles sector, that is rarely the case. Our challenge is building skills at a higher level.”
Florance believes that individual sectors should devise their own Skills Pledges, which would allow certain sectors to focus on higher skills. There are encouraging signs that the government has recognised these concerns. Its re-launched skills agenda, Unlocking Britain’s Talent, in January 2008, and its Innovation White Paper in March 2008, both refer to the need for funded training for Level 3 skills and above.
We will see whether the government follows these words with actions. It is important that it does so. The Leitch Review suggests that if the government were to form partnerships with employers and spend £1.5bn to raise the basic literacy levels of potential workers, more than 400,000 jobs would be created over the next 15 years. Leitch believes that this, in turn, would increase national income by more than £3bn. It would create a 15% boost in productivity growth rate and around 10% in increased employment growth rate.
These figures – if accurate – highlight the importance of a successful skills strategy. By and large, UK businesses know how important it is. They are keen to provide their staff with the skills they need to compete in a global economy, and they are even more enthusiastic about receiving government funding to do so. There is, therefore, every reason why a more ambitious and better communicated Skills Pledge could play a major role in the drive to raise skills in the workforce. We must hope the government can produce one soon.