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Target people, not companies;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

Last week I read accounts of a survey of small firms in Sunderland. These showed that less than a third were aware of the University for Industry, despite the widespread publicity and the broad, often innovative, ways used in the pilot scheme to contact individuals.

My initial reaction was to be incredibly depressed, as the UFI will not help the country succeed unless it penetrates small firms - the engine of our future growth.

Of course, the difficulties of engaging small businesses are well-known and long-standing, and no one seems yet to have found a solution.

In 1995, I was part of a small team trying to promote Investors in People locally to small businesses as part of the programme of work for the National Targets for Education and Training. Our intention was to host a free business breakfast, with good speakers, and focus on the specific business benefits that IIP could bring.

There are almost 2,500 small businesses in the local borough, and we wrote to each one. This was followed up by phone calls and further action - an enormous commitment even when shared by 15 people. Just six people turned up.

My local newspaper tells me the Chamber of Commerce in Royston, Hertfordshire, is facing closure as it has so few members, and those it does have do not want the commitment of helping to run the organisation.

I am convinced that irrespective of the size of company there is a business need, and an inherent demand, from employees for training in new skills.

Barking College placed a stand in the canteen at my company, Telephone Cables Limited and provided guidance staff over several lunchtimes. As a company we have been very active in our approach to training - we were the second company in our region to be awarded IIP, we have won a national training award and, more recently, more than 40 per cent of our employees have received NVQs. It continues - more than 20 per cent of our employees indicated a firm intention to enrol on a basic IT course, with much interest too in other areas. The radical change the company is undergoing may have prompted the immediate demand, but clearly there is an underlying interest that cannot be unique to us.

But if small business is so preoccupied by day-to-day issues that it cannot concentrate on future skills needs, what is there that can be done? I increasingly believe that, in the absence of direct financial incentives, or programmes that address some very specific and immediate needs, there is little point in targeting small businesses as a vehicle for providing more learners and training.

It would be more productive to target people as individuals. If employees can be persuaded of the personal and business benefits of upgrading their skills, they are more likely to give their commitment and secure the support of their firm.

But then the next thing that strikes me about the report on the UFI pilot is that when the researchers contacted small companies they were speaking to individuals. So when two-thirds of the respondents said that they had not heard of UFI, that was two-thirds of the people they spoke to.

The lack of awareness from individuals is far more worrying than that from small firms.

I know that colleges share and support the Government's vision of UFI and - more than any other established organisations - have the resources and infrastructure to deliver. Indeed, many would argue that colleges are already delivering. But what we need is a huge leap to be able to pick up at a national level the latent demand identified in my company.

The college sector will need to support, or preferably lead, a massive publicity campaign that penetrates every home, changes attitudes to lifetime learning, and stimulates individuals to learn new skills. When we have attracted the individuals, we will have engaged small business.

Jim Scrimshaw is chair of the Association of Colleges

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