The skills pledge: what is the point?

Past shortcomings in government-led skills and training initiatives will put many employers off signing the skills pledge. Nevertheless, they should grasp the nettle, says Martyn Sloman.

On 14 June, the first batch of 150 organisations formally signed up to the government’s skills pledge. This requires them to: encourage and support staffto gain skills encourage staffto acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills and demonstrably raise employees’ skills and competencies. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) is one of the first signatories.

We all know we have a skills shortage at a time of relatively high and sustained growth, and that this is seriously exacerbated by a failure of basic skills at lower levels. What is required of the pledge is modest. It is surely no more than something a sensible employer would do anyway. So why is it socontroversial, and why all the fuss?

The answer can only be found by looking at the context of government–led skills initiatives and the employers’ reactions to them. Let’s start with the latter and look at the CIPD’s recent labour market outlook. This showed that two–thirds of the employers surveyed agreed that raising the proportion of UK adults with at least level 2 (equivalent to 5 GCSEs at C level and above) qualifications should be a priority for government. However, 46%of the organisations surveyed were unlikely to sign up to the pledge.

A variety of reasons (costs, lack of a business case, or management commitment or staff interest) were cited. In that same survey, government agency officials were given a relatively poor rating as “skills champions”, with the sector skills councils doing particularly badly on this score.

To put it bluntly, the government’s agencies have a credibility problem on skills interventions they have to make up some ground with the employers.

When Labour came to office a decade ago, there were great hopes placed on two initiatives: the University for Industry and individual learning accounts. Both had been floated and developed in an influential think-tank report. Both were tried but had limited impact.

The University for Industry morphed into Learndirect, while the abuse of individual learning accounts became a public scandal. Set against that, Investors in People has been successful, but employers have groaned under the weight and complexity of NVQs.

So will a modest pledge initiative capture the mood of the time? The answer must be ‘who knows‘, but let’s hope so. What we do know is that any government intervention must fit with organisational imperatives. Training and development are not the primary purpose of the organisation: it’s the business drivers that matter. Anything absorbingunnecessary time and energy will be seen has a distraction and will be side-lined.

However, for the country, the underlying issue of skills deficits is both important and endemic. As our survey shows, most of us in HRare committed to its solution. Moreover, if the pledge and the accompanying training brokerage programme of Train to Gain don’t work, who knows what‘s to come. The Leitch Review even hinted at compulsion to train – heaven help us all if we go down that route. Not a good argument for compliance I know, but a realistic one. So let’s go for it and do our best to make it work. All on board please.

Martyn Sloman is learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

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