From education to employment

Learning from the German skills system

At a recent conference the chief economic adviser, German Industry UK suggested that the UK could benefit from an Auf Weidersehen Pet approach – but in reverse.

Bob Bischof’s point was that the superior and higher-level training that German technicians, trades and craft workers have is something that our plumbers, plasterers and construction workers could learn from. Essentially, the strength of the German vocational education training system is built on a social partnership between the state, learning providers, employers and unions.

In deciding to maintain the funding of the Union Learning Fund, ministers have indicated that they see unionlearn as having a vital role in their skills strategy. Their White paper, Skills for Sustainable Growth, sets out a role for unions in supporting the expansion of apprenticeships, promoting newly-established Lifelong Learning Accounts, continuing to support basic skills provision and providing a link in community learning.

Unionlearn’s work in reaching out to the most disadvantaged groups in society has been recognised and we will be building upon it. In our submission to the skills review we pointed out the inequalities among present apprenticeships – a 21 per cent gender pay gap and low take up among BME communities – and we will be playing a role in ensuring greater equality and diversity as apprenticeship numbers increase.

We obviously welcome this. We are also interested to see that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, under its new chairman Charlie Mayfield, is to be reformed to “become a true vehicle for economic growth and social partnership, with employers, trade unions and others coming together to give effective leadership to business on skills”. The White paper also suggests ways of how these partnerships can be bolstered in order to drive up the quality of training, by introducing the use of regulatory levers to influence employer investment at the sector level – albeit on a voluntary basis – through occupational licensing and training levy schemes.

All these are well-embedded in the German system, where employers do provide a substantial contribution to the training of their employees. The problem we have is that a third of employers do not contribute and 10 million workers do not receive any training. The government’s changes to funding skills – particularly the removal of the Level 2 entitlement for those aged 24 plus – will have repercussions. As Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, says in the policy document, 80 per cent of the workforce of 2020 has already left compulsory education. “If we are to achieve a world-class skills base we need to increase the level of their skills and meet the demands of our economy,” he said.

This suggests that employers will be expected to fully fund all Level 2 training and/or to come to some agreement on a co-investment approach with the workforce and trade unions. Unionlearn has been working on a number of pilot projects encouraging co-investment. But we are concerned that many more employees who want to get on at work will have to to fund their own training. At a time when inflation is high, pay is being squeezed and hundreds of thousands of job losses are on the cards, paying for training is likely to be a very low priority for cash-strapped workers. With the FE sector taking a cuts hit of 25 per cent, the options are limited.

That is why we believe the reformed UKCES (and skills sector councils) should be looking towards the social partnership model of countries such as Germany, where licences to practice, levies and apprenticeships funded by employers are not seen as interference and red tape, but vital components of an industrial strategy towards growth and a skilled workforce.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and training organisation

Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

Unions can be a bridge to the world of work

Those who need the most must not lose out

FE gears up for the autumn conference season

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