September’s edition of Workplace Learning and Skills Bulletin looked at Time to Train as part of a suite of initiatives designed to drive up demand for learning in the workplace. If the consultation leads to legislation, what will make it work in practice?
Mark Ravenhall looks at four main things that need to be done for the policy to work.
Time to Train would provide all employees (who have been with their employer for more than six months) the right to request time off to train. The employer will have a statutory responsibility to consider the request, but would be allowed to decline if not in the interests of the business. If accepted, the employee would be allowed time out of work, unpaid, to undertake the training but could not expect to receive any further support from the employer like tuition fees or additional expenses.
Time to Train is one of a raft of measures aimed at raising both individual and employer demand for economically valuable skills. These include: Train to Gain, personal Skills Accounts, Higher Level Skills policy and Apprenticeships. You cannot see Time to Train in isolation from these policies as it is clearly designed to complement them. However getting the ‘join up’ at the level of policy development and achieving it ‘on the ground’ are two different things, requiring differentiated approaches.
The case for Time to Train is partly based on the perceived success of the right to request flexible working. This law enables carers of adults, parents with a child under six years, or of a disabled child under 18 to make a request for flexible working. Employers have a duty to consider such a request seriously and only reject them for good business reasons. Although flexible working stands comparison with the Time to Train proposal in terms of policy aspiration, the policy evidence is less robust.
Current research has suggested that around 91% of requests for flexible working were either completely or partially accepted but this is based on survey data of less than 1500 managers in larger employers and certain industry sectors. To estimate wider impact, government uses a proxy measure to assess the success of the flexible working scheme. Crucially this does not separate those that have requested flexible working from those that were working flexibly anyway and includes little ‘drilling down’ into sectors, the size of employers, and the processes for acceptance and rejection.
The key assumption made here is that the trigger which causes employees to request flexible working is the same as that which may prompt an individual to request Time to Train? With flexible working the trigger may be a change within the family requiring the employee to spend more time in caring responsibilities. This is a reactive process and one that presents the employer some clear cost-benefit questions (e.g. recruitment costs if an employee is forced to leave).
In the context of Time to Train it is unclear where the trigger or motivation would come from, its comparative strength, and on what grounds the employer (and in particular the third who do not train staff anyway) would make decisions.
Is it enough to say that there are barriers to learning and therefore assume that if one of these (time) is taken away then a request for Time to Train will follow?
The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has recently undertaken work to more accurately segment the market for learning in terms of motivation, attitudes and the barriers individuals face. If barriers are found to be an issue, a similar market segmentation of employers by sector and size would be advisable as it is very difficult to effectively design market interventions without a detailed understanding the market you are in.
It should be ensured that the focus of policy is on those employers and individuals who are most in need of government support. The impact of Time to Train should be to effect change culture in those employers ‘cool’ to training and those employees who think learning is not for them. This cannot be achieved without fully understanding those groups and the precise interventions required to work successfully with them.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has a clear role in objectively articulating employer demand across the piece, and by sector, and advising government in the most effective approaches alongside the most efficient use of public funds. Through the process of Time to Train implementation it will also review the current largely voluntarist system of employer engagement with the learning and skills system.
The UKCES role actually extends further in helping to join up different aspects of government policy so that employers and individuals are able to understand the system on the ground. Time to Train is central to this with its focus on the interface between employee demand and business need. In addition, linking sector and workplace specific policies such as Sector Compacts should add value to the overall offer and each other.
Union Learning Representatives (ULR) are cited as important to making Time to Train work. Some analysis needs to be done to why this is the case and therefore what lessons can be transferred to non-unionised workplaces. Evidence points to the role ULRs play in articulating demand on behalf of employees, who might ask for support around progression at work and are then challenged to take responsibility for their own development by requesting time to train. In the absence of any statutory duty on employers to promote Time to Train, there will be a need for intermediaries like ULRs.
Although employees will have a right to be accompanied to a meeting with their employer to discuss a Time to Train request, this will not be sufficient to ensure that the policy works. In unionised workforces, and in particular those with ULRs, it would be reasonable to assume it would be more likely to succeed. The process for application set out in the Time to Train consultation is straightforward but would undoubtedly present challenges to the least skilled in the workforce without the support of an intermediary.
Clearly there’s a role here for the proposed Advancement and Careers Service in terms of its links with both ULRs and Skills Accounts. Skills Health Checks would also perhaps be a sensible evidence-base for making a request. It would be timely for government to consider incorporating some aspect of this work into the proposed ‘advancement prototype’ trials.
It has been argued that the skills and qualifications system is too complex for employers to understand, or not fine-tuned enough to their needs, the support of the AACS in this regard alongside Skills Brokers would be worth exploring.
One thing is clear, it would be a key aspect of the principle of ‘advancement’ that if a request is turned down as not meeting business need, individuals would need to know where to go for further support.
As a strategy linked to other initiatives it will be important for Time to Train that demand is stimulated across the piece and not in isolation. As with any promotion of a right or an entitlement, there needs to be awareness raising of joint responsibility that balances the needs of employers and individuals.
When the Skills Pledge was launched, central government led the way by signing the pledge covering over 475,000 employees. Perhaps, the involvement of local authorities would be appropriate in encouraging take up of Time to Train. This would fit within the ‘market-shaping’ role of councils in local economic planning.
Government estimates demand from an additional 300,000 learners through Time to Train. This increase in demand will undoubtedly put pressure on providers for more readily available roll on, roll off provision delivered in as short a time as possible. This poses two significant challenges for training providers and learning and skills policy makers. The first is in accurately predicting the level of demand for training. How much training should be available and when will people want it? The second is around the type of training demanded and its ‘fit’ with their offer. Unlike Train to Gain and Skills Accounts the right to request training is not tied to qualifications, so how will training providers cope with sudden demands which are different to their normal offer?
Time to Train ensures a right to request any training, whether this is a short or long course, accredited or not, and formal or informal. From the perspective of the individual this does provide a great deal of flexibility. But employers will reject training that is not directly related to the business. So will the success or failure of the request come down to the employer’s interpretation of the value of training? Could this have the effect of reducing the number of requests as employees lose confidence in their request being accepted? Or will the employer feel guilty in rejecting requests and decide to allow some non business related training to go ahead? What effect will this have on the learning culture within the organisation? All of these questions reinforce the need for greater market segmentation prior to implementation.
As the employer is not responsible for fees, lost time, and additional expenses how easy will it be for many learners to undertake more in-depth, long term training? As the policy currently stands the individual is responsible for all costs plus they will not receive a salary for the time taken to train. This will undoubtedly affect the number of employees undertaking in-depth training or training which involves substantial time away from the workplace unpaid. A key element in alleviating this problem could be the extent to which funding streams such as Skills Accounts or Train to Gain are able to assist with costs placed on the individual.
The overall message is that if individuals face multiple barriers when considering training, Time to Train will have to link with initiatives that address financial, information and motivational barriers as well as time.
This article appeared in the November edition of the Workplace Learning and Skills Bulletin.
Director: Employment and Work at CFE