MANY employers are turning their backs on the qualifications intended to revolutionise training in the workplace, despite a huge increase in take-up over the past two years.
About 800,000 people are working towards National and Scottish Vocational Qualifications - more than the numbers studying for A-levels - and two million have been awarded. Although some 40 per cent of medium-sized and large companies are using them, when small employers are added to the equation, the figure drops to just 7 per cent.
Hairdressing, engineering, retailing, administration and the care sector are examples of those committed to NSVQs. But in other areas - notably teaching, the performing arts, media and finance - they have made little impact.
The lack of take-up was recently analysed by the National Foundation for Educational Research in a survey commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment. Fifty-one employers not using NSVQs were interviewed. No single reason predominated. Many were already providing in-house training that met their needs. Some decided not to take them up because of the time and cost involved, their perceived lack of credibility or commercial advantage. Others found them either too narrow or not specific enough for company needs.
One large department store decided to discontinue NVQs because the paperwork and assessment proved too time-consuming. Another large retailer identified the lack of public funds towards costs for over-25s as the main reason for rejecting them.
In the IT sector, lack of relevance and credibility was a major barrier. Many employees were already highly qualified with degrees and HNDs. Some employers in the care sector feared that money spent on training would be wasted as trained staff would leave for pastures new.
The communications industry, including publishing, design, journalism, photography and technical areas of the performing arts, has awarded just 700 NSVQs - a paltry number considering the size and diversity of the industry.
Jo Aveline, secretary of the Arts and Entertainment Technical Training Initiative, the industry lead body for stage managers, said NSVQs did not suit the pattern of work. "They seemed like a good idea at first, but they have proved to be too expensive, requiring a heavy commitment from people working in an industry that relies very much on casual and freelance labour," she said. "Nor do they fit the work patterns of people employed in West End productions. As a result, few theatre managers have taken them up."
Teaching is also an area resistant to NSVQs. Mark Scott, education curriculum manager at the Bolton Institute, felt that the main problem with NSVQs in teaching was that skills and knowledge had been "atomised" into a myriad of competencies that did not add up into a "whole" that had any value or meaning.
"It is like building a gable-end roof. The assumption is that if you can do all the various individual tasks then you can build the whole roof. That does not necessarily follow," he said. "The issue is to what extent a teacher can make an informed judgement on another teacher's performance without going into detail and reducing the whole into tiny parts. I would argue that they can."
Small businesses have been slow to adopt NSVQs, but for different reasons. The effort involved in putting in place the infrastructure for assessment at work has pushed them down the list of priorities. A Federation of Small Businesses spokesperson said there was still considerable ignorance amongst employers. "Many assume that competency-based training involves giving employees time off to attend college. They are also still confused by the huge number of qualifications available."
David Sims, co-author of the NFER report, found that most employers were committed to competence-based training, but had difficulty matching NSVQs to company needs. "What seems to put employers off is a combination of things that are company-specific rather than any overall antagonism to the general approach," he said. "As one food and drink manufacturer said: 'If it's right for your company, go for it; if not, leave it alone'. That seems to sum up many employers' feelings."
* GOOD WORD NEEDS SPREADING IF QUALIFICATIONS ARE TO CATCH ON.
LIKE LEARNING to fly a plane, it is great when you can do it, but it isn't half hard getting off the ground. That sums up what many employers said of National or Scottish Vocational Qualifications in the National Foundation for Educational Research survey.
Most employers using NSVQs had done so for at least three years and were enthusiastic about the benefits. But there are still huge barriers to be overcome if they are to have a real impact across the workforce.
The recently published NFER study covered more than 360 employers - both users and non-users of NVQs and SVQs. Industry sectors analysed included forestry, water, food and drink manufacture, information technology, public administration, hospitality, residential care and retail. There were face-to-face interviews with 60 employers - senior managers, personnel managers, training managers, employees and others - as well as a telephone survey of 312 additional employers. Interviews were also held including industry training bodies and the training and enterprise councils.
The proportion of employers that had heard of NSVQs has risen from 75 to 92 per cent over the past five years- a leap forward from the early 1990s when the typical response was: "NV what?". Organisations such as Training and Enterprise Councils, Independent Training Organisations, awarding bodies and training providers have done a good marketing job in marketing NSVQs and explaining the concepts.
Although each sector has its own reasons for using NSVQs, some common threads emerged. Most employers said their main reasons for using them were to enhance staff development; improve company performance, quality and competitiveness; accredit training to a national standard; and to accredit staff skills.
Employers were also largely positive about the value and benefits, seeing NSVQs as relevant to company needs. Three-quarters said the quality of their products or services had improved, staff performed better and the company was doing more training as a result of adopting NSVQs.
The study revealed the way companies use the qualifications to meet their priorities. Within forestry, for instance, NSVQs helped staff cope with changes arising from the introduction of new equipment and the expansion of conservation work. In food and drink manufacturing, they were used to help staff increase their range of skills.
They are also valued as a way of giving direction and focus to existing and new training in many companies. Furthermore, the kudos of having a nationally recognised qualification was specifically mentioned by one in 10 employers. This means that "all users of the qualifications would know the standard achieved by an employee which would not be the case with company-specific awards", the NFER report stated. One senior manager in hospitality said: "NVQs are part of the shop window which will attract the brighter kids into the industry."
Retailing and IT felt the positive benefit was increased competitiveness, whereas the biggest impact on the quality of products and services was in the residential care, retail and public administration sectors. One manager of a residential care home said that NSVQs were "a measure to the public and professionals that staff of the home are skilled".
Employees said NSVQs gave them more confidence, improved their awareness of the job and recognised their skills. They also appreciated the value of having a national qualification that was portable. One trainee retail store manager said: "NVQs help you develop different ways of thinking and doing tasks that make you a better manager."
But the research also highlighted difficulties. While many changes to NSVQs, proposed by the Beaumont report in 1996, are now filtering through, some employers said the time taken to collect evidence and perform work-based assessment was burdensome for many staff who were reluctant to take on assessment responsibilities.
There are internal marketing challenges that companies need to take seriously. First is the need to tackle indifference or scepticism amongst senior managers. Second, companies must attract more line managers and supervisors to undertake NSVQs and become assessors. And third, employee resistance must be overcome.
Some are wary of "signing up" for various reasons: limited literacy, the demands of time, the difficult "NVQ-speak", or the feeling that the qualifications are not relevant to them.
Sarah Golden, co-author of the NFER report, said that to achieve a greater take-up of NSVQs a more strategic and targeted approach to winning the hearts and minds of employers was needed.
"The employers we spoke to identified positive benefits from using NSVQs," she said. "However, marketing them to other employers is a particular challenge. In order to get the message across, sector organisations and employers who use the qualifications need to present specific advantages to similar companies and share experiences and good practice, focusing particularly on gaining the support of senior management."
'A Study of Employers' Use of NVQs and SVQs Across Industrial Sectors', by David Sims and Sarah Golden, is available from DFEEPublications, POBox 5050, Sudbury,Suffolk CO10 6ZQ