Four years ago, Lord Leitch was tasked with assessing the nation’s skills to see how well placed we were to compete in the global economy. His findings made for grim reading.
‘More than one third of adults do not hold the equivalent of a basic school-leaving qualification,’ he wrote. ‘Almost one half of adults (17 million) have difficulty with numbers and one seventh (five million) are not functionally literate.’
Compared with France and Germany, our vocational skills also fall woefully short. Leitch estimated that if vast sums were invested and the necessary training reforms put in place, the UK would manage merely ‘to run to stand still’ by 2020. These conclusions came when the country was ‘in a strong position with a stable and growing economy’.
Since then, our economic fortunes have reversed somewhat, but the training gap remains. We spend more money on training hairdressers than in nurturing skills in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sectors.
For an employer looking to hire an apprentice or utilise a training scheme, it’s easy to be dissuaded by the bewildering number of organisations out there and the associated reams of bureaucracy. Do you go to the Learning and Skills Council? The Sector Skills Councils? Business Link? The Learning and Skills Improvement Service? The National Skills Academy? The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills?
Many of these organisations are broken down and run on a regional basis. It’s fragmented, complex and baffling to anyone who isn’t familiar with ‘the system’.
Last July, the National Audit Office (NAO) slammed the Train to Gain scheme, which was introduced in 2006 to support employers in improving the skills of employees and general business performance. By the end of this year, Train to Gain will have spent some £2.5 billion, and yet most employers say it’s made not a scrap of difference to their profitability.
According to the NAO, the scheme is not delivering because it lacks focus. There’s too diffuse an approach to implementation across the UK, while ongoing tinkering has added to the confusion among training providers, skills brokers and, last but by no means least, employers.
To the trained and untrained eye alike, these attempts to help employers and people looking to develop their skills have become something of a shambles. The real beauty of this mess is the fact that the budget and advice is there for those who want and need it. Unfortunately, knowing where to look and whom to speak to has become a skill in itself.