Business opens its account for learning
The latest intervention came last week from Lewis Macdonald, Deputy Minister for Lifelong Learning. Addressing a conference by the Amicus union, Mr Macdonald said: "It is in the interests of all in industry for employers to invest in training, to achieve a highly skilled and productive workforce.
"Employers have to be aware that union learning projects will have benefits for them but they should not replace investment by the employer in training. It should be the role of unions to sell the notion of learning for all to employers."
He went on to announce that the new business learning accounts, ushered in by the Executive's lifelong learning strategy, would kick off later in the autumn with the first 300 accounts. Designed to stimulate more learning in small businesses, four pilots will support the manufacturing and tourism sectors in different parts of the country over the next two years.
The accounts will match every pound an employer invests in training targeted on business growth. Part of the aim is to find out what Mr Macdonald calls "the optimum level required to stimulate long-term employer investment". The Executive will then decide how much money should be available to each business.
A survey last year by the Federation of Small Businesses showed a clear discrepancy between the more than 90 per cent of its members who believed in the necessity of training and the 3 per cent who had done any in the previous year.
The federation then proposed a learning account scheme which was subsequently taken up by the Executive. It suggested that the scheme should focus on the training needs of companies with an ownermanager, but the Executive takes a broader view - although ministers want the new accounts to support training that would not otherwise have taken place.
Niall Stuart, a spokesman for the federation, said indications so far are that small businesses take a positive view of the accounts, largely because training is tailored to their needs and is therefore much more flexible.
Business learning will run alongside individual learning and Mr Macdonald confirmed that the successor scheme to the controversial individual learning accounts, which collapsed amid allegations of fraud, would go ahead - but only after the Executive is confident that "robust" safeguards are in place.
A report into the fiasco criticised lax scrutiny by his department and the minister is clearly anxious there will be no such flak second time round.
He said he would announce the timetable for implementing the mark two version once he was satisfied that both the new scheme and the systems to support it incorporated all the necessary improvements.
In his speech Mr Macdonald notably placed an emphasis on the personal rather than the economic value of lifelong learning. "Learning is much more than about increased earning power for the individual," he said. "Put simply, it is about fulfilling our potential."
Mr Macdonald acknowledged, however, that three things would have to happen before lifelong learning could become more of a reality than it is - cultural change, greater collaboration between business and education as well as between unions and employers, and more flexible learning programmes.
He said cultural change was necessary to stimulate demand for learning, a recognition of findings from several surveys that the public is interested in furthering their learning in principle but not always in practice.
Mr Macdonald also gave further details about the lifelong learning forum which the Executive plans to set up to drive forward its agenda.
He promised it would have a wide membership of interested parties, including learners themselves. "We will also appoint a series of lifelong learning panels of experts and other interests to examine particular themes and topics." The panels would report to the forum.
Referring to union demands to play a key role, Mr Macdonald commented:
"There is no need to 'demand' such a role. We need union involvement to make a success of the forum and panels. The key thing is for unions to be actively engaged, not just to take a seat at the table."
He called on the unions to champion the benefits of learning in the workplace as well as tackling skills gaps, and urged employers to invest in training which would provide them with a skilled and productive workforce.