Get tougher with employers

25th July 2003 at 01:00
THERE is a lot to celebrate in the new skills strategy. But there are still some areas that the Government continues to duck (FE Focus, July 18).

After decades of cajoling employers to invest in skills, the penny should have dropped that voluntarism has failed. Charles Clarke says employers are "drinking at the last chance saloon", and must act on training or face government intervention.

Why wait? The UK is slipping steadily behind France and Germany in intermediate skills, six million adults have no qualifications and every day more unskilled jobs are exported abroad. The Government may eventually be convinced that a "post-voluntary" system is needed, but in the meantime many opportunities to narrow the skills gap will be lost.

A legal underpinning to the strategy is needed now to make it work. For example, all workers should be given the 'right' to paid educational leave. Licences to practice a trade with set qualification requirements - could also be introduced. Recognition of the role of unions in delivering skills is a breakthrough. But despite the Government's talk of social partnership, there is an unhelpful over-emphasis on the needs of business and the economy.

We must never forget that the strategy is about workers' development. Shifting the emphasis to "employment" needs would better reflect the fact that both employers and employees have training needs that should have equal priority.

This approach would be best served if the Government removes the peculiar anomaly whereby employers only have to consult unions on training if union recognition has been won through the courts. The sooner training is on the collective bargaining agenda in every workplace, the more effective the skills strategy will be.

Paul Mackney.

NATFHE general secretary.

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