From education to employment

unionlearn Director Liz Smith writes exclusively for

No one should underestimate the importance of the skills crisis all of us in FE are facing. But the recent complaining by employers about the skills levels of their newly employed workers has a bit of a hollow ring.

Today no less than one in three employers refuse to offer training to their workforce in spite of the incentives that the government is offering. This means that 8.5 million workers are being denied training ““ and many of them are in the greatest need.

The increasing criticism of the FE sector by industry and the CBI is a bit rich. For as unionlearn’s latest report 2020 vision for skills shows, of those workers who are being trained just over one in 10 (11.5 per cent) receive a nationally recognised qualification. So too many employers are not doing enough to upgrade the nation’s skills stock. So the solution to their moans about a lack of skilled workers and school-leavers, is very much in their own hands.

The interim report of Lord Leitch’s review of skills made it plain that 70% of the 2020 workforce is already in employment, so we can”t rely on training the next generation of youngsters to fill this gap.

We have to face the fact that people already at work need to improve their skills. To our shame, six million people of working age have severe literacy problems, and many more have problems with numeracy. Instead of heaping the blame on the education system and hard-working teachers, employers need to come clean about why they are not taking advantage of schemes the Government is offering to help upskill the workforce.

Train to Gain is a great example of this. Yet many employers, despite being given lots of incentives are still not investing in training and this means individuals, businesses, the economy, and the UK are all losing out.

At the TUC Congress next week, unionlearn will be hosting a fringe meeting with Lord Leitch and putting forward our solutions for tackling the skills crisis in the workplace. Unions are in a unique position – our members are part of the workplace and can chat with colleagues and, more importantly, are trusted by them.

If a work colleague has come back from a course feeling really enthusiastic and positive about it then you are more likely to give it a go. Word of mouth has been crucial in unionlearn’s success, based on the hard work union learning reps have put in, and the support of good employers. There are many excellent employers who train their staff to a high standard and reap the benefits. We also know that unionised companies are much more likely to train employees. Many companies who do train offer only health and safety training, merely to comply with legislation ““ it’s these companies that need to recognise the value of investing in their people and taking advantage of government supported programmes.

One of the reasons why we work in FE is that we are really inspired by seeing people gain self-confidence through learning. I have seen an ex-footballer taking a degree, a migrant worker with little English becoming a supervisor in his workplace, and a road sweeper driver overcoming dyslexia and being awarded Level 3 qualifications. It makes me proud of our growing army of 14,000 union learning reps who help colleagues in the workplace back into learning and who last year encouraged over 100,000 of them to access courses.

We all have our part to play in ensuring that the UK does not fall behind in the skills gap. The Leitch Review of Skills is a once in a generation opportunity to arrest this downslide and invest in our workforce. The FE sector, as well as employers, the Government, unions, and employees must all build a consensus to ensure that the vision for 2020 is a positive one.

Liz Smith, Director for unionlearn.

Read Liz Smiths new column on the first Monday of every month, only in FE News

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