US-type training urged to up output

February 2, 1996

Britain should develop an American-style mass education system if it is to match the economic productivity performance of the United States, says the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

According to a survey of chemical engineering plants in the US, Britain and the Netherlands, United States productivity is 60 per cent higher than the British and 25 per cent higher than the Dutch. Yet the education and training provision below degree level is widely held to be "poorly organised and inadequate".

While around 40 per cent of British shopfloor workers are apprentice-trained, fewer than 5 per cent of their US counterparts have similar qualifications. The survey found that about 90 per cent of US shopfloor workers started out with no formal qualifications, learning the necessary skills through on-the-job training.

Report authors Geoff Mason and David Finegold said this "puzzle" can be explained partly by the fact that "the access of US engineering plants to a relatively large supply of technical graduates has helped to meet their increased demand for high- level skills and provided a way of substituting for scarce higher intermediate skills".

Just over a quarter of the US workforce is qualified to four-year degree level compared with between 8 and 13 per cent in European countries such as Britain, Germany, France and Netherlands. The survey noted that US industry has developed a much closer relationship with universities than British industry, and leading US universities were "decades ahead" of equivalent British and even German universities in designing chemical and electrical engineering courses to meet the specific demands of industrialists.

Another difference is that the annual volume of employer-financed continuing training per employee exceeds that in Britain, which in turn is ahead of the Netherlands. About 60 per cent of the US companies surveyed are willing to reimburse tuition fees for employees studying for a degree, and between one and two in every 100 employees at these companies had received such support in the past three years.

By contrast, while some British and Dutch companies said they had assisted small numbers of employees to attend off-the-job vocational courses in their own time, many of these courses only served to "top up" qualifications already gained, and there were very few examples of US-style support for individuals to acquire degrees.

Productivity, machinery and skills in the United States and Western Europe: Precision Engineering. By Geoff Mason and David Finegold. Discussion Paper no. 89. Available from 2 Dean Trench Street, Smith Square, London SW1P 3HE.

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