Perhaps it’s unfair, but anyone skimming through the Conservatives’ recent policy green paper ‘Building Skills, Transforming Lives’ could be forgiven for turning it into a game of ‘spot the difference’. How does it vary from the current government’s policies?
Their policies do completely align in a shared emphasis on putting employers first. ‘Business leadership and challenge at the heart of the system’ (Government), ‘Putting employers centre stage’ (Conservative) and ‘demand-led’ (both). This is both encouraging and troublesome in equal measure.
It is encouraging because continuing to enable providers and colleges to respond to user needs (whether they be employer, learners or the wider community) has to be a good thing, consistent with principles of responsiveness, choice and personalisation. It is troublesome because both the Conservative and government policies, place complete faith in the presumption that simply reforming supply will somehow release a wave of pent-up employer demand.
Clearly, some employers do not engage with colleges and other training organisations because they find the system in its totality (provider, funding and qualifications) too confusing, restrictive or unresponsive. For such employers who are committed to training, supply-side reforms will have a positive impact and making the system easier to work with will increase their engagement with it.
Yet there are also many employers who do not engage because it is simply not in their business interests to do so: they are making a rational decision based on an analysis of their market, product offer and cost constraints. Employers’ training budgets are a useful proxy for their commitment to training and the extent to which an ongoing commitment to training is critical to the success of the business. The latest National Employer Skills Survey shows that the number of establishments with a training budget has barely increased over the last four years (31% in 2003 to 35% in 2007).
Making the skills system more responsive will not increase the demand of employers where there is no case to train in the first place. Such a prognosis always seems outlandish to the white-collar workers predominately responsible for policy in this area, but take a walk out on a industrial estate or talk to your office cleaner about the last time they were offered training and it is not such a wild claim. We should be more questioning about the nature and extent of employer demand for skills, particularly when compared to the ambitions set out in the Leitch Review of Skills for the UK.
Defendants of Leitch and its legacy will argue that there are ways of stimulating employer demand but my conclusion is that it is a policy response for employers with a latent interest in training that has then become extrapolated to become the response for all employer engagement.
What is missing from current policy prescriptions is the need to match the continual enthusiasm for supply-side reform with an equal appetite to challenge and raise employer demand. Not through the message that ‘training is good for you’, or by paying providers more in order that already free training can become even more product-pushed, but through really getting to grips with the underlying economic forces that underpin decisions to train and the extent to which employers as a whole are committed to competing on the basis of ‘high skill, high value’.
Follow this path and you are inescapably committed to seeing the demand for skills within a wider strategy for economic development; it is complicated, messy and can only work when various agencies really join up their strategies and make tough decisions over the long term. And it is probably for this reason that it will continue to be overlooked as such a strategy would not respect the remit letters of current government departments or their agencies. It would also mean tackling head-on the current ‘monopoly’ that employer bodies have which ensures that all of the nation’s skills ills are seen to reside in the supply side. But at least to challenge the unfettered belief in the existence of employer demand is an apolitical perspective.
Michael Davis is Managing Director of CFE, Chair of Governors at Leicester College and Chairman of Lastolite.
This article appeared in the Guardian on the 2nd September 2008.