All parties in the race for power emphasise the need to tackle unemployment and strengthen the future of the UK’s workforce through skills training, but none seems prepared to take steps to ensure training and qualifications are of a high enough standard to take the economy forward by improving productivity and competitiveness.
Billions of pounds of public money is spent on training schemes every year, but employers I speak to know that many of these courses fail to make an impact. At a time when public finances are under severe pressure, we need to rethink the way training is funded so that it delivers the most beneficial results.
As it stands, government-funded training schemes are often failing to achieve effective skills development. Many of these courses and qualifications simply do not develop the skills businesses need – and others are mired in so much bureaucracy that businesses give up on applying for funding. Employers are willing to invest in skills development but Lord Leitch’s 2006 review of long-term skills needs found that less than 10% of training funded by employers takes place in further education colleges.
This emphasises the broad irrelevance of many current training programmes and evidence of the demand that is not being met by such schemes.
We need a skills system that is responsive to the needs of learners and businesses, ensuring that at a time when the workforce and employers are facing an unprecedented global economic crisis, we are getting a real return on investment for the spend on qualifications and training.
The Association of Accounting Technicians would like whoever forms the new government to develop a market-based approach to skills, which encourages individuals and businesses to invest in themselves. A jointly-funded approach to training would encourage a more ambitious and better-qualified workforce to face the challenges of the decade ahead.
It would also prevent learners from signing up to courses that add little value in terms of employability simply because they are free – a waste of both public money and the individual’s time, and something that does more harm than good in motivational terms.
If employees invest directly in their own careers, they have the opportunity to take control of their own training – if they pay, they can choose, if they choose, they can have training and development that will benefit their careers in the long-term. Individuals who contribute to the cost of their own training are far more likely to demand real results in terms of employability and work-related skills at the end of the programme. Over time, training providers will have to ensure the courses they offer are responsive to need.
Investing in one’s own skills is not a new or novel approach; after all, people already pay (in part) for the benefits of a university education through tuition fees and with student loans. This change has not deterred people from applying to university. In fact, there is evidence that it is making university students more active and demanding consumers of education.
Of course, we must ensure that those with limited means are not excluded from development opportunities by the need to pay. We want to encourage participation by individuals from the widest possible range of backgrounds. Yet the current focus on 16- to 19-year-olds is hampering other age groups who should also be eligible for funding.
We believe that every learner should be given a personal funding entitlement and allowed to draw on this entitlement when they are ready and motivated. Rather than offering a bottomless well of money to individuals who may not be engaged with the training system and which abruptly dries up when they hit 25, learners should be able to access a finite pot of money, which they can choose to use at the appropriate stage in their career to deliver the most benefit.
Unless we re-engage with our learners, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own training and motivating them with programmes that are responsive to their needs, we will not only be failing them but stunting economic growth, now and in the future.
Jane Scott Paul, chief executive, Association of Accounting Technicians