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Employers turn backs on skills

New studies reveal huge shortfall of unqualified workers for low-grade jobs. Ian Nash reports

employers have failed to back the Government's drive for a better skilled workforce and are instead demanding more unqualified people to fill low-grade jobs.

The latest figures from the Department for Trade and Indu-stry show the supply of people with qualifications at any level outstrips employer demand by almost five million. Yet there is a shortage of four million people to fill jobs that require no qualifications in all sectors from service industries to manufacturing.

Further evidence of problems facing ministers trying to sell the skills message to business comes in the annual survey of adult education participation carried out by Niace, the national organisation for adult learning.

The survey for Adult Learners' Week, published in the report "Road to Nowhere?", shows a big drop in numbers of workers studying or training - with the sharpest, 15 per cent, among part-timers.

With 500,000 fewer adults in study now, compared with a year ago, the survey suggests the Train to Gain scheme, which compensates employers for money spent improving the basic skills of the workforce, is missing the mark.

Worse, the report says, employers are using public cash for training they should pay for themselves - a concern already voiced by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a Labour-leaning think-tank.

Together, the DTI and survey figures will be a disappointment for ministers, said Alan Tuckett, director of Niace. "The Govern-ment thinks if it gets people through level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications, they will leap through levels 3 and 4 and get a real return on pay and productivity in a global market. But no one is signing the employers up to this. The economy has a much greater appetite for low-skill, low-pay jobs than current thinking allows for."

Train to Gain was "a one-club policy" permitting no one else to join, he said. "There is a danger we will give people skills employers don't want while denying them access to wider learning to improve their quality of life."

Phil Hope, skills minister, said government was aware of the dilemma which long-term policies would tackle. "Globally, we cannot compete with the likes of China where pay is low. We need a high-skill, high-wage solution.

Train to Gain is only one route to success. Others include Skills for Life."

But the study shows a drop in participation among every adult group except pensioners. Here, increasingly well-heeled senior citizens are using the Internet and self-study opportunities they can afford to pay for.

The Niace report says: "No significant progress has been made in increasing participation among those who left school earliest, or amongst the poorest socio-economic groups - despite the successes of the Government's Skills for Life strategy. Many of those hit by redistribution of budgets (favouring Train to Gain) come from the very groups government is keen to encourage to learn."

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