Skills deficit will prevail if industry isn’t forced to pay

UK industry is as committed to skills training as Government is to non-elitist higher education. Only legislation will guarantee investment in it, says George Pitcher

Some 22 years ago, I was trained in editorial production at a magazine group (not this one). The prevailing wisdom was that this graduate training scheme was only in place because it exempted my employer from paying a levy to the relevant Industrial Training Board.

It was actually a very good course. It set me up in trade and professional magazines and I switched subsequently to newspapers. But the industrial training levy was scrapped shortly afterwards, just as soon as Thatcherism got into its stride and started clearing centralised bureaucracies from the path of British business.

The consensus is that companies don’t voluntarily train their workforces – they have to be made to do it, or at least induced to do it. This is an important piece of industrial intelligence, because the Government is shaping up to enjoin a greater commitment from UK industry to back its education initiatives for people over the age of 16.

Skills minister Ivan Lewis has made it clear that his government’s reforms, worth some £7bn a year to the Exchequer, must be met by an enthusiastic voluntary response, or within five years there will be legislation on the statute books to force companies to respond to training requirements.

In other words, the threat is that, if companies don’t respond well to next year’s publication of the Government’s first national skills strategy and review of the responsibilities for the funding of adult learning, they will be hit by the equivalent of the old centralised training boards of the Sixties and Seventies.

The attitude to training in the UK is paradoxical. Everyone in any position of authority confirms that it is tremendously important and claims that they are committing prioritised budgets and resources to it, but we never seem to get anywhere with our rather mediocre standards of training.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), for instance, never needs encouragement to feel pleased with itself and states proudly that British companies invest some £23bn annually in training. Meanwhile, workforce training standards in the UK stagger along behind those of our industrial competitors.

It was this combination of complacency and poor standards that Labour sought to address when it won power in 1997. The laboriously constructed Learning and Skills Council (LSC), with its echoes of centralised training power, represents its response to the unsatisfactory position of training in our economy.

But the Government isn’t bad at producing the odd paradox too. When it comes to further education, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s attitude borders on what is popularly termed the schizophrenic. The declared priority ahead of the 1997 landslide was “education, education, education” and we took that to mean an improvement in educational standards that served all levels of skills and society, rather than the elite.

Since then, Blair has sent his own children across town to a selective school to receive a decent education, sought to buy them private tuition, and rapidly tried to re-adjust his instinct to introduce top-up fees for university education. These would return our finest educational establishments to academies for the rich, where elite post-adolescents could spend three years doing slap-all at their parents’ expense.

Now, I know there is a world of difference between a university education and skills training for industry. Or, at least, I’m constantly told there is. Organisations such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors (IoD) regularly tell us that we concentrate too much on universities and insufficiently on training that will supply the jobs and skills that industry needs.

The degrees that these organisations always cite with contempt are those such as “golf-course management”, though I’d have thought that those who pay their subs to the CBI and IoD would want their golf courses managed well.

In any event, one would have thought that the representatives of British industry would be satisfied that the Government’s instincts appear to be elitist when it comes to university education while throwing public-sector weight into vocational training. We will clearly be getting more lathe-turners than golf-course managers in the future.

But my fear is that industry will turn out to be about as committed to training as the Government is to further education. The fact is that industry is as reluctant to pay for the former as the Government is to pay for the latter.

History tells us that. Since the end of the Second World War, the statute books are littered with examples of well-intentioned skills initiatives that never satisfactorily fulfilled their promise, from the technical colleges to the industrial training boards. The LSC is just the latest.

Industry has to be made to invest in training by the Government, just as the Government has to be made to invest in further education. Both industry and the Government will claim a deep-seated desire to do so, but – as we have seen – their instincts lie elsewhere.

There is little, for the time being, that we can do about the Government, but there is a great deal that Government can do about industry. Rather than putting it off for five years, the Government should legislate for industrial support of the LSC.

But, as in public services such as education, the Government has a track record in putting things off for five years or more.

George Pitcher is a founder partner of communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon. His book, The Death of Spin, is published by Wiley at £16.99 and is available at bookshops or at wileyeurope.com.

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