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Liz Smith tells how training investment is crucial to escape the recession in her exclusive column

By Liz Smith, Director of unionlearn
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Too often in times of economic downturn training is one of the first items companies cut back on. But this view of the problems ahead is very short sighted and represents a false economy. In reality there is plenty of evidence that employers who develop their workforces’ skills benefit their bottom lines.

A good example of this was revealed in Huddersfield, last month, when Centrebus Ltd, signed a national learning agreement with their union, and at the same time signed the Government’s Skills Pledge.

At the signing ceremony, Centrebus Managing Director Peter Harvey said: “I’m happy to work with Unite the Union to increase the skills of our workers, especially in the current economic climate. I believe that through signing a learning agreement and giving our public commitment to the Skills Pledge, we will jointly be able to develop our skills and our business for the benefit of customers and staff.”

Clearly employers like Centrebus Ltd will be better placed to ride out the economic turbulence. They know that raising their workforces’ skills can save money through lower absenteeism and sickness rates, and higher retention rates. This forward looking approach was encouraged at the end of October when TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, joined key players in the employment world and published a blunt open letter to UK employers. The letter stated their absolute commitment to continued investment in training.

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Headlined “Now is the time to invest in skills” the open letter appeared in most major UK newspapers. It was signed by Mr Barber and Sir Michael Rake, Chair of the UK Commission on Employment and Skills; Mervyn Davies, Chair of Standard Chartered; Richard Lambert, Director General CBI; and M&S Chair Sir Stuart Rose who is also Chair of Business in the Community.

The letter urged UK businesses to keep investing in training and pointed out that firms that don’t train are more than twice as likely to fail than those who do. The letter went on to highlight that it is the people we employ who will get us through when times are hard. And in a clarion call to employers to value a highly skilled workforce the letter says: “when markets are shrinking and order books falling, it is their commitment, productivity and ability to add value that will keep us competitive. Investing now in building new skills will put us in the strongest position as the economy recovers. From our experience in previous downturns, it was the businesses that did invest in their staff which saw the most dynamic recovery.”

And employers should remember that the Government is proposing a “right to request” time off for training could play a crucial role in this, and with the Government offering funding through Train to Gain, this may be the perfect time for those employers who don’t train, to wake up and smell the coffee. And what’s more investing in staff training is not just something to do if forced by recession, but pays long-term dividends. Those who train now will find themselves ahead of the game in the future.

So FE has a clear role in helping the economy to weather recession. FE can provide for those employers who are convinced to invest in their people, create apprenticeships and develop the talent within their companies. In that way FE will play its part in providing a silver lining to the oncoming economic clouds.

By Liz Smith, Director of unionlearn

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