Skills reform

Tackling the problem of employer demand for reskilling

Employer demand can no longer drive skills strategy from the position of customer. They must be brought on as co-producers, writes Irena Grugulis

Employer demand can no longer drive skills strategy from the position of customer. They must be brought on as co-producers, writes Irena Grugulis

15 Jan 2023, 5:00

According to the World Economic Forum, 44 per cent of the skills employees need to perform their roles will have changed by 2025, and nine in 10 workers will need some form of reskilling. In that context, the results of two recent UK surveys are concerning. They reveal that 61 per cent of employees feel they don’t have the skills they need for the next five years and 26 per cent haven’t participated in workplace training for a decade.

The work and employment expert group, ReWAGE recently carried out an analysis of existing research for Gatsby Education. We found that there is an urgent need to upskill and reskill adult workers to enable the UK to meet the upcoming challenges facing its future prosperity and productivity, and that there could be huge risks in failing to take action.

Successive governments and employers have all agreed that training is valuable, but as the statistics demonstrate this is not always backed up with practical action.

Government can do a lot to encourage the upskilling of jobs: shaping practice in the public sector, encouraging initiatives such as the NHS Skills Escalator and ensuring that official contracts prioritise good employment practices. It also needs to actively support employers to work collaboratively and upskill workers.

But first of all we need to have an honest appraisal of systematic problems and fully embrace the fact that employers, while being part of the problem in the way that they are increasingly choosing to ‘hire in’ skills rather than upskill existing employees, are also a crucial part of the solution.

The key issue here is how to move employers from the role of ‘customers’ in the skills system to that of co-producers. Many excellent employers do take the lead in this area, but there is a clear need for a sustained conversation with employers about their contribution to what should be a joint enterprise, as well as a recognition that some employers need more basic support before they can tackle upskilling.

We lack a system for training workers in the theory and practice of workplace learning

Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) are a potential vehicle for nurturing this more in-depth conversation and moving the dialogue between training providers and employers to a new level. By encouraging employers to focus on increasing skills-based training and measuring increased numbers of apprenticeships and adult training, their involvement can evolve beyond simple links to colleges and local providers and into the stimulation of further skills-based training within their own organisations.

A great deal of learning happens in the workplace and attention needs to be paid to the development of those responsible for formal training, enabling them to develop their skills and expertise in both the subject matter and the educational process.

But let’s not forget the important role of informal training. In the UK, while individuals do mentor and develop others there is little support available for these activities. Many employees do these things well, but relying on individual interest, effort and talent is both unreliable and unsupportive. We lack a system for training workers in the theory and practice of workplace learning.

By contrast, an integral part of Germany’s ‘Meister’ (master craftsman) qualification – the stage after apprenticeship – is learning to teach, support and develop people as they learn skills at work. As a result, every German workplace includes senior workers who have learned to develop others and who see it as part of their job.

Improving links, collaboration and co-operation between adult training and education, private training providers, FE colleges and universities is also key, as is using independent advice on skills to drive policy.

The department for education’s unit for future skills (UFS) is already actively improving the quality of information on skills. It would be helpful to build on this through an independent body, working closely with the UFS but outside government and modelled on the lines of the low pay commission, to provide policy recommendations.

In the meantime, it’s clear that that the dialogue between providers and employers facilitated by LSIPs must move to the next stage. Employers can’t simply rely on colleges and others to adapt to their needs. They too must adapt to make learning a reality for their employees.

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