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Reskilling: why the UK needs to reform vocational education

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The UK could learn from the German model of vocational education, which fosters partnerships between learners, companies and unions to build skills in the context of real jobs. To make it a success, however, we first need to change our thinking.

14th Apr 2021
MD Nigel Paine.Com
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Reskilling is much more than ‘reskilling'. Let me explain: you can reskill all you like, but without the context and the motivation, you are building cynicism faster than skills, and creating resentment more rapidly than jobs. Sadly, there has been a dogged belief in the value of giving people new skills without necessarily building new attitudes or new jobs for 50 years or more.

This aggressive commitment to re-tooling the workforce is a legacy of former UK prime minister Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ philosophy and legacy from the 1960s. His opinion was that there was a new age of high-tech production for the UK economy, but in order to benefit from its opportunities, there had to be a rapid upskilling of the workforce. If we look at the subsequent collapse of that same economy right through the 60s and 70s, you might doubt the genius of those ideas – but they persist!

There is a real possibility to build a new vocational contract in the UK led by companies with a vested interest in the results. 

In order to improve our outcomes going forward, we need to reform our approach – and there’s quite a lot we can learn from our neighbours in Germany about this.

The German approach

Why is the German model so much more successful than the UK one?  Germany has a long-standing belief in codifying skills and building legally binding competence and qualification frameworks. This mainly dates back to the 1940s and the post-war rebuilding of German industry. It is all enshrined in law and boasted about proudly by the government. Its report on vocational education and training in 2015, for example, proudly asserts: “Germany’s dual vocational education and training system is an essential pillar of its economy’s competitiveness and capacity for innovation and central to the country’s social cohesion” (Federal Report on Vocational Education: 2015).

What’s the difference? It is simple – it is a duel system, i.e. a partnership between the central and regional governments, companies and the social partners (we call them unions). No-one enters the system without a job first, and your success reflects back on the employing company’s success. This is not abstract training, but in-context skills for whole work performance.

Fundamentally, it is a social partnership. This means that the tap is not turned full on in times of plenty, and switched off when times are tough. It is not uncommon for companies to take on more apprentices than they have full-time, permanent jobs for. This allows the generic talent pool to swell, so that other non-training companies can benefit from a high-quality talent pool.

Real world insights

Siemens, for example, has an excellent reputation for the quality of its engineering apprenticeships, and the quality of the scheme’s graduates. Every year the company takes on 100 new trainees in Berlin alone, regardless of the company’s overall needs. This means that the well-resourced training infrastructure does not get shut down and opened up on a regular basis, depending on the performance of the company. Some years, most of the graduates will end up working for Siemens, in other years, relatively few. Every person that joins the Siemens scheme knows, however, that if Siemens will not employ them on completion, other companies will snap them up, as they are an elite group who came through a rigorous selection process and have been brilliantly developed to problem solve and work in high functioning teams. These graduates are engineers plus.

What Siemens has always realised is that for its business to adapt and grow in today’s unpredictable landscape, its workforce must have not just the skills to survive, but also the appropriate tools and mindset to drive the business through adversity. This incorporates a robust reskilling strategy, but it is so much more than that. Siemens builds engineering graduates who can solve today’s problems but are also equipped to solve tomorrow’s. They have also been developed to share their skills and learn from their colleagues.

This is a coming together of real-world insights and practical skills, inside agile talent pathways. This is a workforce that is internally mobile, and permanently reskilling as new business needs emerge. This is a group that has been developed to work together effectively, and share ideas, problem solve and work things out without the need to run for assistance. It is a long way from a simple focus on skills development.

This group knows how to interact with senior managers and ask smart and helpful questions. Their work pods are situated on the route to the canteen, and the issues they are working on are posted on the outside of the pods.

As staff pass the pods on the way to lunch, they are encouraged to walk round the side of the pods and discuss the current challenges with the apprentices sitting in their work area. If they cannot help, the workers are asked to suggest other people to connect with, who can help with the challenges, and offer alternative approaches to the problems. The challenges are not aimed at the individual, but the group. Individual excellence is predicated on group success.

The secret sauce

Does it work? There are currently 330 recognised training occupations with formal qualifications attached to jobs in Germany. Around 500,000 completion certificates are issued each year. Young school leavers apply for jobs in companies and are automatically enrolled on courses at the partner vocational school.

These schools work in partnership with the individual’s employer. Successful applicants sign training contracts for a number of years and they spend approximately 70% of their time in the company, and 30% of their time in the vocational school. Assessment is shared between the partners, and the resulting qualification is issued by the company and the school. This is not an aberrant system either – countries like Austria, Belgium and Denmark closely follow the German model.

These qualifications are mandated and enshrined in legislation, and if you want to change them, you need a statutory instrument at regional and national level to do so, rather like the National Curriculum in England, which requires legal permission to alter.

An article published by Andy Green, University of Leeds in 2005 tried to separate the differing vocational education models into ones that were centralised (like Greece and France), regionalised (like Italy, Spain and Germany), localised (like Sweden and Norway), and voluntary and market driven (like the Netherlands and the UK). No model stands out as better than the others. All the countries seemed to spend between 4.5% and 7.0% of GDP on vocational education and training.

The differentiator is the leveraged contribution from the private sector. In Germany, that is a huge 22% of that budget; compare that directly with the UK’s less impressive 9%. As the level of financial commitment rises, so does the investment in successful outcomes. This could be the secret sauce.

There is a real possibility to build a new vocational contract in the UK led by companies with a vested interest in the results. This new model must build mindsets, toolsets as well as skill sets in the context of real jobs executed in the real world under realistic conditions. We have begun that process, but it needs a huge push. We cannot afford to stumble again.  

Interested in this topic? Read What lies beneath: the skills issue undermining inclusive growth.

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By Dawn Sillett
04th May 2021 15:35

Good piece Nigel, thank you. It brought back memories of a long-ago school exchange month in Hanover. I'll never forget the teacher explaining (in both German and flawless English) the forthcoming job placement programme that all our host peers would start after the Easter holiday.
She opened her talk with the words, "the purpose of school is to prepare you for work'.
It rattled this naive teen a bit, so I piped up, "Isn't the purpose of school to prepare us for society?' The answer, "That, young lady, is the job of your family." well and truly put me in my place. Our hosts were already weighing up potential careers and employers at 15, and schools were listening to what those employers needed.

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