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Business needs to grasp the cash nettle

Everything in the world of training is rosy or a bed of thorns, depending on whose figures you believe - the employers' or the unions', reports Jon Slater.

AFTER YEARS of being told they are not pulling their weight when it comes to training, it seems employers are launching a counter-attack. Suddenly we are told there is no training problem - in fact this country ranks among the world's best.

To the surprise of many, the Confederation of British Industry claims in a report to the National Skills Taskforce that "there is little evidence to imply that Britain lags behind its competitors in terms of employer-provided training".

This goes against the grain. We have been bombarded by statistics claiming our skill levels are lower than our competitors. Our perceived poor performance when it comes to vocational training is almost taken for granted. According to conventional wisdom, we are the dunce of the developed world with the Europeans, and especially the Germans, well ahead of us.

Government figures show that employer-funded training for 16 to 18-year-olds has fallen slightly during the past four years but superficially at least, the overall picture does look rosy.

Figures from the Institute of Employment Research show that the proportion of employees receiving training in the four weeks before being surveyed has almost doubled since 1984.

And figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show the UK tops a league of 11 countries both on participation rates and the number of courses funded by employers.

However, in their submission to the skills taskforce, the unions paint a different picture. They point to a "long tail of companies - mainly small and medium enterprises that are not investing in the skills of their workforce." And the TUC argues that while more people may be training, they are doing so for less time.

There are also concerns about the quality of training provided. A recent report by the Training Standards Council found that 15 per cent of workplace training courses were unsatisfactory.

But while we could do better, the state of training today is not the real problem. The UK is one of only four countries (Ireland, Poland and New Zealand are the others) where half the adult population have literacy levels below the OECD desirable minimum. And the National Skills Taskforce, which was set up by the Government to report on Britain's skills needs, found that in contrast to France and Germany, less than half of Britain's workforce have intermediate-level qualifications.

Inevitably that means Britain is playing catch-up. The Government and employers can point the finger of fault at each other, but it is in both their interests to solve the problem.

The Government certainly seems to believe that there is a need to boost training. Ministers have set a target of half of all adults to be qualified to level 3 (A-level or advanced GNVQ) by 2002 - the present figure is 45 per cent.

And their flagship individual learning accounts (ILAs) are designed to encourage individuals and their employers to add their money to the Government's to improve training in Britain.

So far this push has stopped short of compulsion. Business managed to win the pre-election battle to keep a training levy off the political agenda and employer contributions to ILAs remain strictly voluntary.

But business confidence that they will not be coerced is fragile and the issue refuses to go away. A Labour party consultation document recently revived the question of who pays for training. The education and employment policy commission asked for views on "the respective roles of government, employers and individuals in relation to investment in lifelong learning and skills training".

Hence the concern from the CBI. The report to the skills taskforce urges caution about any top-down policy initiatives, "Great care would need to be taken in applying public policy instruments to the diverse training market," it says.

The Government is unlikely to anger business by introducing a formal levy. It would seem too much like old Labour. Instead they may be using it as a threat to get business to play a greater part in funding training.

But the concern from industry suggests that behind the scenes the Government is pushing businesses hard to invest more in the skills of their workers. The question is, will those businesses respond?

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