How must Lord Leitch be feeling now? After spending two years grappling with a policy response to tackle the huge challenges facing the UK on the skills front, a number of employers do not seem to have a good word to say for him. His call for employers to sign up for a skills pledge has been mercilessly attacked from all quarters (Personnel Today, 22 May).
Even before the format of the pledge or its sign-up procedures have been announced, the government is being advised by some employers that the pledge should be shelved. It is this kind of laissez-faire attitude that has been largely responsible for the UK’s mediocre skills performance compared to our international competitors.
This employer response is incredibly short-sighted. The government is making considerable resources available for employers to help raise all workers to Level 2 [the equivalent of five GCSEs grades A-C]. And it has made clear that if there is not voluntary progress before 2010, then a statutory right to training will be introduced.
Employers are therefore not only looking a gift horse in the mouth, but are shooting themselves in the foot at the same time. Imagine the squeals about more red tape for business if a statutory right is introduced. But they can’t say that they haven’t been warned. And skills envoy Sir Digby Jones has said this is not an empty threat (Personnel Today, 29 May).
The employers’ attitude is also a potential source of self-harm, as current official forecasts predict that Level 2 skills will soon become the minimum standard for the vast majority of jobs throughout the economy. And, as the Leitch Review highlighted, improvements to competitiveness and productivity in UK businesses are hugely dependent on eradicating our legacy of low skills.
That is why the skills pledge is undoubtedly the lynchpin of the review’s aim to virtually eradicate low skills by ensuring that 95% of the adult population achieve a Level 2 academic or vocational qualification by 2020. While many leading employers do support the training and development needs of their staff, the unavoidable truth is that over a third are still offering no training at all.
The TUC lobbied Leitch for a much stronger approach. We argued for the immediate introduction of a statutory right to workplace training for workers without a Level 2 equivalent qualification. Leitch took a different view, calling for a voluntary approach.
Despite our disappointment, and in contrast to the negative reaction of the employers, I have written to all the general secretaries of affiliated TUC unions, calling on them to promote the potential benefits of the pledge.
However, even before the Leitch Review was published, hundreds of UK employers had already signed learning agreements with their recognised unions. Such agreements have ensured the appointment and training of more than 15,000 union learning reps, and the proliferation of more than 800 workplace learning centres. These centres have seen tens of thousands of workers improving their skills.
The pledge will help to strengthen the dialogue around workplace learning, which could lead to joint commitments between unions and employers. In turn, such commitments could strengthen workplace partnerships through learning agreements.
Already, leading companies such as First Bus UK, VT Shipbuilding, and Merseytravel have demonstrated how costs and productivity can be significantly improved through a partnership approach on skills between employers and trade unions. So, while the TUC is still committed to the need for more statutory obligations on employers to train, we are ready to give the pledge a chance to deliver. And the TUC’s education and learning organisation, Uunionlearn, is actively supporting all unions to galvanise their union learning reps to use the pledge to build on their successes to date.
At this stage, it does not seem too much to ask employers to do likewise. Or, at the very least, not to bury the skills pledge before it has even seen the light of day.
Brendan Barber, general secretary, TUC