UKCES urges government to stop ‘tinkering’ with skills system to boost employer engagement


The government must stop “tinkering” with the skills system post-recession if it wants employers to engage with its over-arching training strategy.

The Hiding the Wiring report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), released exclusively to Personnel Today, concluded that progress on simplifying the skills system had been good, but warned there was still much to be done.

While the report outlined “significant progress” in creating an integrated brokerage service for employers and meeting skills needs through Train to Gain, it admitted greater progress was still required in preventing the proliferation of brands and initiatives within the service, reducing the complexity of funding and contracting of skills provisions, and increasing the speed of progress on qualifications reform.

The report warned the government about the dangers of “complexity creeping [into the skills system] by the back door,” through the introduction of new brands and initiatives to cope with the recession, which could confuse and disengage employers.

The report said: “During the course of our research, there have been a number of new initiatives, largely related to the need for action to reduce the impact of the recession. While this is understandable, there will be a need to ensure that the growth of new brands and initiatives does not continue.

“The need for consistency in policy and practice, without continual tinkering, has been a clear theme from all of our consultations and should guide practice for the future.”

Jane Earl, director of simplification of skills at UKCES and author of the report, told Personnel Today: “We recognise that there will be new initiatives. But it’s more helpful for employers to get a continuous and consistent service.

“What we have seen is considerable progress on putting systems and processes in place to make things easier.”

The UKCES report also included a survey of 3,000 businesses which found 60% of those which had used government skills provision during the past two years had had a positive experience.

But the survey also revealed that just under two-thirds of employers that knew about the skills services offered by the government had rejected one or more services, with more than half of these firms citing bureaucracy as the reason, and 34% saying they were confused about which organisation to go to.

Despite UKCES reporting that progress had been made, HR professionals unanimously told Personnel Today they had noticed little change within the system, and that it remained overly bureaucratic and complex.

Leatham Green, assistant director of personnel and training at East Sussex County Council, said: “The skills system is still as confusing and as bureaucratic as it has always been – I see no change.”

He added there was little promotion of the funding, unreasonable deadlines were put on employers, the system was too bureaucratic, and it was predominantly focused on process and not outcomes.

Stephen Moir, director of people and policy at Cambridge County Council, said: “The whole skills agenda and accessing funding to support this remains exceptionally bureaucratic, complex and unclear.

“While the premise of the Skills Pledge, Train to Gain and other initiatives to enhance the skills and capacity of the UK workforce are wholly correct, particularly in preparing for an economic recovery, the way to access such support remains unhelpfully frustrating for employers.”

Steph Oerton, head of talent and development at National Express, said not enough information was reaching employers about funding provision for the programmes.

She said: “We are not clearer about funding options – we have had very little by way of information. The only news I get it that funding is tight and there are pockets around for various things, but no-one seems very sure what these are or what the criteria is.”

Meanwhile, Mandy Ferries, head of personnel and training at pub chain JD Wetherspoon, said: “There are still many levels of red tape involved in the process, although we are told that this has significantly improved even in the past year. This level of bureaucracy, along with the lack of a consistent message, does make it difficult to plan ahead.”

Last month the Conservatives admitted they would scrap the government’s flagship skills programme Train to Gain, because it was a “massive dead weight cost”.

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