Time to explode training myths

THIS week sees the final report of the Government's National Skills Task Force. Based on a two-year investigation, the report sets priorities for skills development in the UK and an agenda for action.

To fit work-based training into the strategy for raising UK skills, we need an accurate picture of what is being done. That's why the Confederation for British Industry has produced Fact not Fiction, a report on employer-provided training in the UK. Our findings show that, while there are no grounds for complacency, widespread myths about training need to be dispelled.

One frequently encountered myth is that the UK does less training than other countries. In fact our performance compares favourably with that of competitors. On participation in training we actually came out on top in the International Adult Literacy Survey, well above the United States and Germany.

What about the myth that small firms don't train? Wrong. Firms with fewer than 200 employees account for 57 per cent of the UK's total training expenditure. Smaller firms (under 25 employees) do lag behind larger ones on off-the-job training - one person's absence makes a big difference in a small firm. But these companies put more of their resources into supervised on-the-job training.

It's claimed that firms limit training in transferable skills because they are afraid of employees being poached. Another myth. Computing and communication skills, both vital to a wide range of jobs, are top areas of training activity in the UK. The CBI Employment Trends Survey shows 61 per cent offer training beyond the needs of the job. There is no evidence that training increases staff turnover either. In fact employers who offer training are generally less likely to lose their workers.

There are, of course, still firms that do not invest in their workforce. The UK is moving towards a training culture but different companies are moving at different speeds. We need to identify the successes of the current system ad build on them. The Investors in People standard is possibly the best way to achieve this.

Having exploded the myths surrounding our training performance, we still need to address the reality of persistent low qualification levels in the UK workforce. If we don't, there is a danger that the labour market will split between the skilled and the unskilled. Work-based learning offers a second chance for those uncomfortable in a classroom environment. But employer-provided training has limitations. Because they train with business objectives in mind, firms often focus training on those who are already highly-skilled.

To reach those with the lowest level of qualifications, we must work in partnership with the education system. Training cannot replace basic education but it can complement it. It makes sense to address the problem as early as possible through the schools. Progress has been made here. In 1979 43 per cent of the workforce had no qualifications. That figure is now 15 per cent. But more than a third of workers are still not qualified to level 2 and many of these have problems with basic skills.

A key challenge faced by educationists and employers is those who don't want to learn. The attitude of the individual is a vital part of the skills equation. One possible incentive could be an entitlement for low-skilled adults to public funding to achieve a national vocational qualification level 2.

Despite the progress of the past 20 years, low skills levels represent a serious challenge for the UK. The problem cannot be seen simply in terms of failing schools or exploitative employers. The low skills issue is too important for that, both to UK business and the individuals concerned. The National Skills Taskforce has finished its investigation, now we must take their agenda forward. Employers must work together with education professionals and unions to tackle the barriers to learning that remain.

The author is deputy director general of the CBI

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