From education to employment

From CBI to MFI; How Much Truth in Fears for Workforce Development?

With so many reports on employer participation in training and statistics on employer satisfaction with FE flying about, it is easy to forget that the issue facing the economy regarding skills is one of marrying two different sets of organisations with very different priorities.

For colleges and training providers, for inspectors and for union learning reps, the emphasis is on training for a qualification. The Government have set extremely ambitious targets for participation and achievement in education; for instance, the rise in numbers of apprentices, ahead of schedule in many areas, or the target of having 50% participation in university education. Further targets are indicated by the provision of free training up to the age of 25 and up to Level 3.

These are laudable goals, and as such they should be striven for. But it is important to consider this when approaching the question of motivation. Through these initiatives, FE is given its targets; achieve this many learners studying for this NVQ or for that A Level by this time. And, as such, the focus of the funding, and of the efforts for engagement and provision is towards the Government indicated programmes.

A Steaming Hot Cup of Training

However, employers do not necessarily head straight for a qualification. In a recent conversation on BBC Radio Five, the Chief Executive of the Café Nero chain in Britain spoke of the making of coffees by his staff of barristas as “quite an art.” He went on to stress the need for his staff to be skilled and trained in making speciality coffee, and commented that this is the product of training received through the company.

He went on to comment on the ambience of the chain of stores, saying that the welcoming atmosphere was designed to create a feeling of a “home away from home”. However, with regards to skills and training for the staff, the key statement he made here was as follows: “¦quite a lot of skill involved in making the coffee the proper way, which is a critical component to our business.”

A Crucial Difference

That, in an admittedly small and extremely focussed example, is the crux of the issue. Businesses have an entirely different priority when approaching training, and sometimes this need is not met by a “hard skill” course, but by either a “soft skill” such as communication skills and a friendly mien (such as can be said to work in Café Nero’s favour, judging by the Chief Executive’s comments on the atmosphere) or through training on the job without a diploma at the end.

Businesses exist only just as long as they function well as businesses. Therefore their core concern must remain their profit margin. A healthy company is able to train the staff within its control; but the emphasis for an employer will not be meeting a target set in Whitehall, primarily. It will be meeting the target set by their shareholders, to increase their portfolio’s value. This is not, however, an argument against any side of this peculiar polyhedron which seems to have more sharp angles and corners than sides on occasion.

Perhaps, however, it is time to approach the subject in a more removed fashion. Perhaps it is time to ask whether FE is being asked to be all things to all people. Is it being asked to be a meeter of targets from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), an engager of employers for their skills needs, a tool for inclusion, for development, for the economy, for literacy; a tool to repair the damage done by education neglect of the past at the same time as a tool to build stronger supports for the future?

Whatever the solution may prove to be to the issue of both engaging employers and tackling a skills gap legacy (albeit a shrinking one according to the latest National Employer Skills Survey [NESS]), the course to be run would be smoother if all the motivations were understood; be they educational, political or financial in origin.

Jethro Marsh

A skilled swinger in FE, right here in From the FE Trenches!

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