UK skills: Is the slow learner of Europe finally on the move?

Post-Leitch, there have been several government-inspired initiatives designed to raise the UK’s training game. But, says John McGurk, some of them are falling well short of target.

The elements of the Leitch report that list the UK’s skills deficiencies are almost as well known in HR and policy circles as our favourite telephone numbers: five million adults without functional literacy and 17 million without the numeracy standards required of a 16-year-old and the UK ranked 20th of the 30 OECD countries in terms of basic skills.

The UK is the slow learner of Europe. A fusillade of policy initiatives have been fired at the problem. But what we want to know is: are they working?

Bureaucratic and cumbersome

Take Train to Gain, which is supposed to help employers meet their skills requirements. There is dissatisfaction in parts of the country with the service on offer, which is seen by many as bureaucratic and cumbersome – as reported in the CIPD’s recent labour Market Outlook Survey. Many employers report lengthy waits for a consultation with a skills broker and complain that training solutions are often inadequate. More welcome is the extra financial help for smaller employers through Train to Gain.

Next, the Skills Pledge. This is, like many initiatives, confusing, poorly communicated and has been met by indifference. Many employers resent the idea that government wants them to publicly declare their support for what is, in effect, a political initiative. It has no substance other than the normal routes such as Train to Gain. It’s not a bad idea to have a public commitment to training, but without a focus, the Skills Pledge runs the risk of being seen as just warm words.

Now on to recognising the value of in-work training through on-the-job vocational qualifications. Showcase pilot projects at Flybe, McDonald’s and Network Rail promise much. The CIPD welcomes these initiatives, as it’s important that training is linked to the best learning environment of all: the job. But these need to be portable and their content needs to be rigorous. Lessons need to be learned from previous vocational training initiatives.

The most troubling policy for employers is the expansion of apprenticeships. Again, quality apprenticeship training is something we all welcome. However, government has inflated the promise of apprenticeships and failed to put the incentives in place. Employers could be incentivised through tax breaks, for example, but ministers have dismissed the idea.

Employers also complain that the government’s focus on Level 2 skills is misplaced. We need to focus on the key issues of soft skills and higher level skills, they argue. Academic iconoclasts such as Ken Mayhew and Alison Wolf believe the skills agenda is oversold and that government is confusing supply and demand. Whatever these more rarefied debates, most employers see plentiful evidence that we need to act. So has the action been appropriate?

Too many initiatives

Overall, the government has made the mistake of offering too many initiatives, some of which are not yet in place and most of which are simply routes into Train to Gain. The CIPD believes that the need to build our skills base means the UK must act on a far greater scale than that. But, at least the government now recognises that it needs to put more into upper level skills, so we’re going in the right direction. But it must keep a watchful eye on the route map to ensure we stay on track.

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