Spotlight on: vocational qualifications

The intellectual snobbery around National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) means the British economy suffers. This, at least, is the opinion of Gareth Philips, business development director of EDI, the second biggest provider of NVQs in the UK.

More than five million NVQs have been awarded since the programme’s inception in 1986, and they cover about 88% of occupations. For Philips, the great thing about NVQs is that training is always up to date.

“The standards are updated to match the requirements of industry at the time,” Philips says.

But the image problem persists. “The classic NVQ type is seen as someone who has left school at 16 with few or no qualifications and who is not academically inclined,” admits Philips. “And yet a huge skills gap in terms of vocational skills has been identified in the UK, and NVQ fills that perfectly.

Stuart Coyle is a development consultant and manages the provision of accredited programmes and qualifications for global media giant Sky in Scotland, where NVQs are known as Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs). Coyle has overseen more than 900 SVQs in customer service and contact centre skills in the past two years.

“SVQs are not held in the same esteem as other qualifications, but the perception has shifted over the past couple of years, because people have seen how the business has benefited internally,” he explains. “Retention has improved at Sky as a result of people gaining these qualifications. Staff are much more likely to be loyal as a result of being helped through an SVQ, and motivation and performance have improved.”

When Sky employees graduate, the company provides a formal ceremony in Edinburgh, with a Sky news presenter involved to reinforce the positive experience.

The fact that training can improve attrition is well known, but NVQs have an added kudos.

“For many it’s about being recognised as reaching a national standard in the job that they do,” says Coyle.

Julie Coventry, HR manager at social housing and construction company United House, agrees that NVQs have a special appeal.

“They are a badge of experience,” she says. “They allow individuals who have not had the opportunity or money to go to university to demonstrate commitment.”

United House has put 10% of its workforce through NVQs. “A number of individuals have done an NVQ in supervision of a construction site, and once that is successfully completed we will sponsor them through the next level, helping them build qualifications alongside experience,” says Coventry.

So in the light of the good news, where does the negative perception come from?

Coyle explains: “NVQs are seen as only appropriate for 17-year-old mechanics or people in certain trades. Employers don’t understand the incredible range of topics on offer, and the range of people who take – and want to take – NVQs. When I looked through Sky’s feedback there were comments like: ‘I am 64 years old and wanted to prove I could do this’.”

NVQ facts and figures

  • NVQs were introduced in the UK in 1986
  • Media company Sky claims that participation in its SVQ reduced employee attrition by around 20%
  • The number of NVQ certificates awarded in the 12 months to 30 June 2006 was 573,271
  • There were 682 NVQ titles ‘current’ at the end of June 2006
  • NVQs available cover a diverse range of sectors and interests from accounting technology to archaeology

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