Business bids low for skills

December 8, 1995

It is difficult to imagine there ever being an awareness-raising AIDs-style "training" day, let alone a whole week. But, in retrospect, that is what we have just had - if unofficially and without pretty ribbons.

On Monday, at the Partnership Awards ceremony, businesses rewarded universities which had developed innovative skills-oriented courses. On Tuesday the Government's much-touted Lifetime Learning document called for ideas on making lifetime learning "a reality". On Wednesday the Institute for Public Policy Research published Employee Training, a survey into the state of in-work training in the United Kingdom. On Thursday, Realising the Vision: a skills passport was released by the Confederation of British Industry as an update to its influential Towards a Skills Revolution.

Coincidence rather than contrivance, but taken together these separate events reveal the thinking among those supposedly constructing the training framework. On core skills everyone will be singing from the same hymn sheet this Christmas. Last month the TUC called for a core skills "gold standard". This week the CBI called not only for a skills passport but also a DFEE-backed core skills task force. Everywhere higher education is devising innovative skills-based courses to prepare undergraduates for work - so much so that the Partnership Awards are to end, their job done to the trustees' satisfaction. Everywhere, too, employees have got the message: with today's unsettled job prospects, they need to be as skilled as possible.

So where is the problem? It lies with Government's lack of will to drive home training requirements. The lifetime learning document comes extraordinarily late. Nor is lateness compensated for by a clear blueprint for action. This is a hastily-packaged hotchpotch of muddled policy, a cry for help concealed as a consultative document. The Government is in a fix. Despite much time spent ostensibly trying to sort out the 14-19-year-old academic and vocational framework, even that is still not satisfactory. But worse, the vast majority of people who will comprise the workforce in the year 2000, and who need skills, are past school age. If there is to be a skills revolution tomorrow, it must embrace today's workers and unemployed.

The biggest problem is convincing employers that training is worthwhile. Educators and employees may agree but among employers many are still unconvinced. In particular they remain unenthusiastic about contributing to training the least skilled and least employable. Their reluctance is reinforced by messages like that last month from the Employment Policy Institute, that a skills revolution is unlikely to solve unemployment and send the economy sailing ahead in the 21st century. The IPPR report shows that employer bias is leading to a divided training system, with mainly the well-educated getting a bite of the "training cherry" in preference to the poorly educated.

To give it credit, the Government realises that employers are too tardy. The lifetime learning document is mainly addressed to them because, as an early paragraph has it, "employers must lie at the heart of all efforts to increase participation in lifetime learning". The CBI, which so often shows how companies are leading the crusade towards a skilled economy, also targets employers. It calls for a learning contract between the Government, employers and individuals and for a national company campaign to achieve the Investors in People standard.

It also calls for voluntary individual learning accounts. And here is the rub. Business contributes Pounds 28 billion for training, Government Pounds 37.4 billion and individuals Pounds 12.6 billion. The CBI is to study whether that Pounds 28 billion is enough. Almost certainly it is not. But while prospective funding remains voluntary, it is likely to be inadequate. The Government has ruled out compulsion. Labour is still umming and aahing. But unless the politicians twist arms nothing much will happen.

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