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The only way is up

Britain needs a huge cultural shift towards lifelong learning to compete economically with the rest of the world, according to Learning and Skills Council chairman, Bryan Sanderson.

"We're finding it very hard to drive people up," he says. "There's an enormous waste among adults who don't have qualifications but are perfectly capable of getting up the educational ladder.

"We've got a quarter of a million people back into learning, but it's a cultural problem and you don't change a culture overnight."

Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that Britain's skills are polarised. There is an above-average proportion of people with level 4 skills (degree-level), but the same is true of people with low-level skills too, leaving a big gap where levels 2 (GCSE equivalent) and 3 (A-levels and equivalents) should be. Qualified people are often eager to get more education and training, but too many workers think qualifications are for other people, says Mr Sanderson.

The situation is further complicated by people who have skills that are recognised in their workplace, but not nationally.

But we should be much clearer about the size of the problem by the autumn, when the National Employers' Survey is published. It is questioning up to 70,000 employers on the skills gaps they need to fill, the training they are already doing and what they think of the provision available.

For the first time, there will be a detailed database that the local learning and skills councils and regional development agencies can use to fine-tune their education and training planning.

Mr Sanderson believes it is essential to get employers more involved.

"We need to tap into people who understand what skills are needed, and get people on board who can cut through fluff and bureaucracy."

Big companies often do extensive training, but it may not be recognised, or "portable" to other jobs. When he was at BP, Mr Sanderson recalls, it took six months of hard work by the human resources department for the petrol station managers' course to be nationally accredited. So Mr Sanderson wants a better dialogue between business and the accreditation agencies, such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and City and Guilds. Big firms can also help small-to-medium enterprises by selling them places on their training courses.

While he thinks management training is generally good at the top, some styles need to change.

"It's hard to manage in the autocratic style that was common even 20 years ago, and many young people won't accept that now. We need different sorts of managerial skills - it's a process of leadership. To stay in front of the ferocious competition, you need to change."

Training in technical skills is essential, but as countries such as China update their industries, "we need to be very, very good in the services area, where you need a whole raft of skills".

And though they say they want the generic key skills such as communication and team working, not all employers are doing their bit to build up the national stock.

Mr Sanderson is particularly concerned about attitudes to Modern Apprenticeships.

"Employers speak with forked tongues sometimes, and in high employment areas they take people on before they've completed the qualification, so it looks like they've dropped out. Part of the answer is work-based learning, but we do need employers on side - they can't just be self-interested."

Sue Jones

NATIONAL EMPLOYERS' SURVEY

* 70,000 employers will be questioned on skills gaps, their own training and their view of education and training provision

* The questionnaire will produce the first coherent database on training to cover all England

* Questioning will be conducted by telephone from March to June

* The results are due by autumn and will be used by local learning and skills councils and Regional Development Agencies to plan education and training

* The research will be carried out by NOP, BMG and IFF Research

* The research was commissioned by the LSC, the Department for Education and Skills and the Sector Skills Development Agency

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