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UK customers badly served

The poor level of customer service in England is the biggest problem in a country trying to improve the skills of its workforce, employers say.

A disproportionate number of workers identified by bosses as lacking the skills to do their jobs properly are in sales, customer services and other similar jobs. Though they form just over a quarter of the workforce, they make up two-fifths of those with inadequate skills.

Researchers for the Learning and Skills Council interviewed just under 75,000 businesses for the annual survey of employers' views on the skills gap.

Tim Young, senior researcher at the consumer magazine Which?, said: "It doesn't surprise me at all that there are problems in customer service. To get customer service right takes time and resources and, most of all, commitment from business. Businesses which do get it right, reap the rewards. But, because there's no immediate return, it often gets shoved to the bottom of people's in-trays."

However, the survey could be a sign employers were finally acknowledging the problem, he said.

A spokeswoman for Skillsmart Retail, the retail sector skills council said they was concentrating on developing sales skills to boost employers'

revenues rather than broad customer service skills.

The fact that employers had collaborated in setting new training standards showed their commitment to tackling the problem, she said. New qualifications structures and occupational standards were "designed specifically to help address skills gaps in retail", she said.

In general, the skills gap is narrowing, with only a sixth of employers having staff not fully equipped for the job, compared to nearly a quarter five years ago.

Just 6 per cent of workers are deemed to lack the skills necessary for their job, although employers say they have trouble finding people with the right training for a quarter of all vacancies. Chris Banks, chairman of the LSC, said: "There is still much work to do to continue reducing the skill gap ... with the growth in more highly-skilled jobs and a decline in unskilled work." According to LSC figures, colleges were used by 35 per cent of firms using external training and 82 per cent were happy with the courses.

The average employee gets 7.5 days training a year at a cost of just under pound;2,550 each, the survey says.

However, some employers questioned whether there was a substantial shortage of skills at all. More than a third said they had carried out no training for 12 months and 71 per cent of these said this was because their staff were proficient. Others said staff learned by experience, or formal training was not needed in their small firms. The few firms that did not offer training blamed the cost of courses.

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