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Interview: Viren Patel (The Open University) on growing your own talent

Viren Patel, Corporate Director at The Open University, spoke to TrainingZone about the need for a more flexible and sustainable L&D approach that champions lifelong learning.

30th Sep 2019
Editor TrainingZone
In association with
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Viren Patel, The Open University

Could you begin by telling us a bit about your role? What led you to your current position at the OU?

Predominantly my responsibility is to work with employers both in the UK and internationally to understand what their learning and development needs are and to help them address those skills gaps through the OU's training solutions.

I was previously an accountant and moved into the commercial world 20 years ago. I am one of those individuals who used on-the-job training to change their career direction and am therefore an example of what can be achieved if you use good work-based learning to progress in your career. 

The Open University Business Barometer 2019 reveals that organisations spent £4.4 billion on temporary staff, recruitment fees, training up staff hired at a lower level than required and increased salaries in the past 12 months. This was due to difficulties finding employees with the right talent. Does this indicate that employers need to focus more on re-skilling existing staff to plug the skills gap?

I think it does. It's all about the war on talent – employers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the right people to meet their skills requirements and are buying in new skills at a premium price. If businesses want a more sustainable approach they need to grow their own talent.

Our report shows that more than 53% of employers have increased their training budget over the past year. This not only benefits the organisation, in terms of filling the skills gaps, but also motivates employees and increases satisfaction and loyalty. 

The digital skills gap remains a huge issue that is affecting almost every business today. What’s the best approach for employers to take to tackle this?

The obvious solution for employers is to acquire those skills – but that comes at a price. The longer-term solution is to work on a skills exchange approach, working with schools and colleges to enhance the skills of the younger generation before they enter the workforce.

But if organisations really want to tackle the issue properly they will need to transition to a model of lifelong learning, whereby employers are enabling employees to learn throughout their career, giving them the skills they need to remain relevant in a digital space.

Why should apprenticeships be considered a key part of L&D’s talent strategy? What benefits can it bring compared with other training routes?

Many organisations send their employees on face-to-face courses or provide online training, but we've seen evidence that a work-based approach is more effective.

Our Business Barometer report states that nearly two-thirds of employers say that work-based training delivers a better result because of the knowledge, skills and behaviours that the learner demonstrates. 

Apprenticeships enable the employee to immediately apply their new skills in the workplace, which in turn can lead to higher productivity for organisations. They also help reduce business costs because there’s no need to acquire talent at a premium price or recruit temporary staff to fill a gap. So there’s a three-fold benefit to using apprenticeships for improving the skills shortage. 

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the Apprenticeship Levy is fit for purpose. What’s your standpoint on this?

The concept of the levy is ambitious, transformational and something to be applauded. But I think we all accept that the system has to be tweaked to offer a bit more flexibility and be sustainable over a longer period of time.

I'm a strong believer that the levy has to remain employer-led so that businesses have flexibility in the process to meet their requirements. The Open University was a part of the advisory group for the CBI report that has just been published, which goes into more detail on how the levy should be changed.

To ensure people remain relevant in the future workplace, how do businesses need to change their approach to learning and development?

We need a flexible, multi-faceted approach to L&D that’s not just about ticking boxes. We need to align to the organisation's growth strategy and ensure learning is embedded into the workplace. And we need to adopt learning by design and take a lifelong learning approach.

Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to L&D practitioners who are looking to refresh their strategy for next year?

First, conduct a skills audit. It's really important for organisations to review their existing workforce and map that against future needs. That will give them an idea of what their training requirements are as well as hopefully how to align those skills with longer-term objectives.

Second, take an integrated, flexible approach. Organisations tend to rely on one specific type of training but they should be open to replacing or supplementing those existing training solutions with additional types of learning.

Finally, none of these approaches will work without engaging employees. Businesses need to consider how their continuous learning environment impacts their culture – and internal communications is crucial to this. It’s that motivational piece that's really important because without it you're not going to have a successful L&D strategy.

Discover how to use apprenticeships to future proof your business in this report.

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