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Why should employers pick up the pieces?

Business can train people, but only if education first makes them literate, numerate and willing to work, says Sir Digby Jones

Education, Education, Education. Who can forget Tony Blair's historic manifesto pledge as he delivered the words with such passion at the 1996 Labour Party Conference? But, eight years on - and on the eve of an expected general election - just how much has the system improved?

The Labour Government has undoubtedly made good progress in primary schools, improving the literacy and numeracy of many children. And our high achievers do well by international standards in the exams at 16. But far too many young people still lag behind or underachieve at secondary school.

It is a sad fact that half of our 16 to 19-year-olds do not have basic numeracy skills. Less than half get a grade C or better in maths and English at GCSE. Yet 80 per cent of jobs require at least this level of competence, and employers are seeking to recruit more highly skilled professionals and fewer unskilled operatives. As a result of low basic skills, the UK economy is losing up to pound;10 billion a year.

Business remains passionate about improving education and ensuring that employees are highly skilled. The value of a skilled and motivated work-force is more important than ever, as globalisation demands that business adapts quickly to new economic challenges.

It is not good enough just to keep pace with others - we need to be one step ahead of the competition if the UK is to remain an attractive place to do business. Unfortunately we have a much longer tail of low-skilled people than most of our competitors, which is damaging business competitiveness.

But it is not the job of employers to pick up the pieces when individuals are failed by the education system. While some of the highest achievers are doing better than ever, the gap has widened with those who leave school unable to read, write, add up and communicate. As a result many employers are doing the job of schools - a third of companies say that they now have to provide remedial literacy and numeracy training.

Employers are committed to training and developing staff, investing pound;23.5 billion in England alone in the year 2000. We must understand that employers train staff to meet business needs, whatever they may be: to implement new, more efficient practices, to produce that innovative product to break into a new market or to improve their standard of customer care.

It is misleading to see skills and learning as ends in themselves.

We also need to sort out the perennial Cinderella of vocational education.

Sadly, more than four-fifths of young people taking such options are low achievers, despite countless initiatives to make it the equal of academic study. Commitments on teaching and resources are needed to drive a prolonged period of pressure to improve quality and make vocational options attractive to young people and their parents.

All of us - business, individuals and government - must work together to improve the skills of those already in the workforce, especially those who have suffered from the past failings of education. Employers are providing an increasing number of apprenticeship opportunities for school-leavers and are pro-actively working through sector skills councils to establish future skills needs and design the courses and qualifications that will be needed.

As we approach another general election, the plea from employers must be to get it right first time. Business does not expect young people to be ready to do specific jobs when they recruit them, but they do expect them to have the basic employability skills needed to be able to do the job competently after the relevant training - to be functionally literate and numerate, to be able and willing to learn and develop and to have a positive attitude to work.

This is what business, and the country, needs and expects from an efficient and effective education and training system.

Sir Digby Jones is director general of the Confederation of British Industry .

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