As the UK general election campaign reaches the final stages, what do the political parties say about training and development? Well, precious little as it turns out. There is a focus around apprenticeships for the young and / or the unemployed. There are some pledges about schools and vocational training but in reality the state of skills in the UK and whether there is a skill shortage is a little overlooked in favour of more eye catching proposals primarily designed to reduce the jobless figures.
This would seem somewhat complacent. In the figures produced by the Office for National Statistics and the OECD in February, UK productivity was 31% lower than that of the USA, 28% lower than Germany and 27% lower that France. This means that a US worker produces the same amount in three hours that a UK worker will produce in four. Of the G7 countries, only Japan has lower productivity figures.
(In some ways, the Japanese economy is a special case. Japan has significantly lower unemployment but has been in recession for most of the last two decades. This would suggest that Japanese companies have not turned to redundancy and staff cuts to stay afloat in choppy economic seas. Japanese companies recognise their role as providers of employment and social status. For the majority of Japanese employers and their employees, the promise of a job for life still holds true.)
The productivity gap between the UK and other major economies cannot be exclusively laid at the door of skill shortages. Investment in modern plant, machinery and innovation has also ensured that the other G7 nations remain more productive. However, workers’ skills are a contributory factor. A failure to invest in capability and skills of those in work, will damage future economic developments.
In the absence of any of the major political parties setting out a clear vision for learning and development as a force for good in the economy, here’s what I think the general election manifestos should have contained:
1. Create a network of centres of excellence for workforce development and performance improvement. The centres will have a research and guidance role and will provide advice to UK employers free of charge. This advice will be based on evidence based practice.
2. Training and learning entitlements. All employees working for more than 30 hours per week will be entitled to learning and development opportunities through their employer. These will initially focus on immediate work skills but will also include addressing personal educational gaps where required. Rather than defining a minimum level of inputs, these entitlements will be based on all employees having a development plan which will be outcome and performance based.
Those working fewer than 30 hours per week or on temporary or ‘flexible’ contracts will be able to maintain their personal development plan via a network of skills hubs operating under the auspices of the centres of excellence. This will be voluntary, but over time, it is anticipated that employers will require those job seekers to be able to evidence their engagement in learning activities prior to applying for employment,
3. Introduce a process of workforce development inspection for private sector businesses, (OfDev). As well as monitoring and auditing the delivery of training and learning entitlements, all companies employing more than five people, wishing to win government contracts, benefit from government funding or gain other, publicly funded support (including apprenticeships) will need to have achieved or be working towards a common standard of excellence in L&D practice.
This standard will be based on a new and improved version of the Investors in People standard and will include mandatory, paid induction training. Those achieving the highest standards will be able to claim reduced rates of corporation tax.
When bidding for government contracts, the total cost of meeting these requirements will be discounted from the price of the contract. This adjustment to the bid price for UK Government contracts will, therefore, favour compliant UK based employers when they are competing with suppliers based in other countries and who will not be subject to the same requirements to invest in the skills base of UK PLC.
Of course, in the current climate, it would be wrong to publish an unfunded commitment in a party election manifesto and so there needs to be a route to funding these policies. I would argue that the productivity gains which would follow will return far more than the investment required by the state, but there will be a time lag between implementation and returns being generated.
We know that those on part time or flexible contracts often miss out on training. In fact, one of the ways less scrupulous employers reduce the costs of employing people is to cut training completely or expect employees to attend training unpaid, during their own time. Whatever other policies are introduced concerning zero hours contracts, employers who use part-time or ‘flexible’ contracts will pay into a levy which will support the funding of the centres of excellence, the inspection regime and the skill hubs. According to the Office of National Statistics, there are more than 10 million part time or temporary workers in the UK. A relatively small levy – say 50p per part time or flexible hour worked - would generate an investment fund of c. £100million per year.
I appreciate that the political parties will be most focused on those issues relating to people out of work or under-employed – especially the young. But it seems to me that we have a significant opportunity to boost workforce development in a country which will never be able to compete effectively as a low skill, low wage economy. If we are serious about using the talents of the people who live on these islands, we need to invest in their continued development. As L&D people, we know we could do more if the climate was right. I believe that the kind of policies I have outlined would rapidly change the conversation about L&D and reposition it as a central force in improving performance for individuals, for employers and for the country as a whole. Frankly, having a political conversation of any description about workforce capability and development would be a significant move forward.
What do you think? Would these proposals make a difference to L&D and the ability of UK employers to be more productive and more effective? Most importantly, would you vote for them? Let me know your thoughts.
Robin Hoyle is a writer and senior consultant with Learnworks Ltd. He is also chair of the World of Learning Conference. He is the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement. His new book, Informal Learning in Organizations will be published in September by Kogan Page.