Raising low skill levels is the way to riches

29th May 2009 at 01:00

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This statement has become cliched in discussions of wealth, but is valid - and current - elsewhere. In skills development, it is a recognised paradox that employers tend to give training to their most educated staff.

New research by the City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development, where I work, shows the same is true at the other end of the scale: people who do routine, unskilled work - say, cleaners and factory workers - are the least likely to get training.

Two questions arise from this: why is it happening and what can be done about it?

Career progression from a low skill base is difficult, if not impossible, without training. Lack of career progression opportunities entrenches inequality, which is linked to poverty. Given the Government's drive to alleviate poverty, it should be no surprise that initiatives such as Train to Gain have been developed to help provide adults with basic skills. But our centre is concerned that overall investment in skills is not weighted towards the people who need it most.

Over the years, the Government has made much of its commitment to getting 50 per cent of young people into university. This has put a significant burden on the Treasury, and many have said it should not come at the expense of other forms of training. This imbalance cannot help to reduce inequality.

Our centre is concerned that Train to Gain is a blunt tool. Few employers have taken it up for groups that are hard to reach, while some take funding for training that they would have conducted anyway.

We also feel that it imposes too much assessment for the amount of training that is provided. Fundamentally, it is failing to provide a large number of unskilled people with a first step towards increasing their skills and future prospects. What, then, can be done about this? We believe there are three steps that must be taken immediately.

First, the Government must provide training specifically for the unskilled and low paid, or at least provide better incentives for employers to do so. Governments have tended to focus on high skills. This is partly to do with ambitions to move towards highly skilled, knowledge-based economies. But I would posit that an essential part of a high skills economy is to develop the abilities and ambitions of those with the lowest skills.

Second, the Government should think about how best to encourage employers to move towards high skill, high performance workplaces where individuals are empowered and entrusted to use their skills and initiative. Quite apart from improving people's self-perception and dignity, research shows a link between high performance working, motivation and productivity.

Finally, we advocate increasing skills brokers' responsibilities to include advising businesses on how to upskill their staff and adopt high performance working practices. Firms and training providers tell us brokers are not doing an effective job.

Taking these steps, we may be on the way to a more equitable society, more profitable workplaces and a thriving economy.

Who Trains? www.skillsdevelopment.org

Matilda Gosling, Senior manager for research and policy, City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development.

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