It is a regrettable fact that standards of literacy and numeracy in Britain fall well below those in some other developed countries. In Lincolnshire we routinely assess NVQ candidates under the age of 25 for literacy and numeracy; depressingly, more than 20 per cent fail to meet even the standard expected of an 11-year-old.
But at least our schools try to educate young people. When our youngsters complete formal education, they discover that their new employers have little or no interest in teaching them new skills. British companies spend only 10 to 15 per cent of the money invested by their nearest foreign competitors on training, leaving a labour force lacking not only elementary academic achievement but practical vocational skills as well. This latter failure is unnecessary.
Workplace training for NVQs is probably the most cost-effective way of improving the competence of employees in a range of skills. Unfortunately British business views long-term investment in training with a jaundiced eye. A trained employee is a valuable resource to every other employer; training therefore increases the value - and, in an open market, the cost - of employment. And the cost of training can be avoided if an employer merely recruits staff who have been trained by others.
Will Hutton, David Marquand and others have persuasively argued that our major foreign competitors routinely make commercial choices which also support wider social objectives.
So, can the state help? As things stand the Government provides funding only to train younger workers (under 25) and the long-term unemployed, a strategy which misses the point about the value of training to the economy as a whole. In fact, the training of the unemployed has no immediate impact on economic performance, except at the margin where such training can solve skills shortages. If aggregate performance is to be improved we must first concentrate on improving the competence of the economically active - that is the employed - workforce.
A dynamic economy grows faster and thus employs more people than one which routinely under-performs. All British employers stand to gain from training - and could perhaps be persuaded to train, if only they could be sure that their competitors would follow suit.
Employers should not only train their staff; they should also pay for it. This must be a requirement, not an option. After all, if vocational training is properly a cost of employment the burden should be shared equally, not borne solely by those enlightened souls who see it as a civic duty.
There is a model for such a system just 25 miles from our borders, in France. French employers pay a payroll tax, graduated according to employment levels, against which they can offset the costs of approved training programmes.
Britain's National Training and Education Targets require that by the year 2000 60 per cent of the workforce be qualified to NVQ level 3 (supervisory or junior management level) or its equivalent, and 30 per cent to level 4 or above. It is certain that these targets will be missed by a wide margin.
The latest Labour Force Survey shows that just over 42 per cent and 24 per cent have reached these respective levels, figures which represent increases of little more than 6 per cent and 2 per cent over the past three years. Time, perhaps, for a major downward revision of the targets? Or, more positively, for some urgent action to meet them by achieving more than 4.5 million NVQ level 3 and 1.5 million NVQ level 4 equivalents over the next three years or so.
The cost of seriously addressing this objective would be considerable. There are, however, at least two mitigating factors. First, the bulk of the cost would take the form of wages for the large corps of experienced tutors and lecturers that would be needed. But many of these teachers could be unemployed managers and technical specialists whose talents are not being exploited. This would bring significant savings in unemployment and social security benefits. There would also be additional tax revenue.
Second, such a strategy would be an investment in real, long-term jobs which would continue to benefit the economy as increased efficiency leads to growth.
Training is a long-term investment. It affects the performance of individuals throughout their working lives, and forms the background to further advance without which a modern economy cannot hope to maintain, let alone improve, competitiveness.
So we can wait, in the forlorn hope that British industry will hit our national targets, or we can do something about the inevitable shortfalls by taking action now. Time is not on our side.
James Bennett is director of resources at Constant Browning Edmonds, a firm which this year will provide more than 1,000 NVQ training programmes in East Anglia