Why are soft skills so hard to promote?
As we move into a period of economic uncertainty, ‘softer’ skills are becoming increasingly important for families, communities and employers.
Informal adult learning in the workplace represents the best way to cultivate them, writes CFE's Abigail Diamond.
Soft skills are most practicably brought about through informal learning and the most relevant context for this, in terms of employability skills, is the workplace. So, one must ask, what does provision of informal learning currently look like in the workplace? The short answer is that, across the piece, we do not really know, apart from the fact that there seems to be quite a lot of it. The CBI tells us that two-thirds of all training offered by employers does not lead to qualifications, costing employers about £33 billion per annum.
This is not the same as saying that most training in the workforce is ‘informal’. Many formal courses are certificated but do not lead to a registered qualification. However, a Department for Trade and Industry study in 2004, based on the now superseded Labour Force Survey, informed ministers that of those adults who had had any training in the last four weeks, 40 per cent were not studying towards a qualification. Of the total, 38 per cent were learning in the workplace. Of these, about half were doing on-the-job training, and half off-the-job. If the learning was off-the job, about half of these were actually studying on the employers’ premises. The other finding was that non-certificated learning tended to be of much shorter duration, typically less than a week, than certificated provision. The exception has always been the initial training that employers feel they need to provide in a more formalised way.
All this is very interesting in the light of government investment in union learning representatives, and their role and great success in promoting both informal and formal learning in unionised workplaces. Earlier innovations, such as voluntarist learning-at-work schemes like the Ford Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP), were based on providing funding to employees to undertake any non-job-related learning. At one stage, the Ford scheme at Dagenham reached a third of the workforce and alone accounted for one per cent of all adult education in England, none of it funded by government but linked closely to public provision. This perhaps points to some of the thinking behind the informal adult learning consultation: the interrelation of formal/informal, workplace/college based, publicly/privately funded provision. So why do informal learning and how might it benefit employers?
The recent CBI skills survey highlights complaints about the ‘raw material’ joining the workforce, and the expectation that the education system should provide businesses with people with the soft skills to be trained. Such ‘employability skills’ are an increasingly important part of employment policy and perhaps, as Chris Humphries suggested in June’s Adults Learning, we haven’t done enough to understand the pedagogy needed to increase informal learning. Or perhaps ‘informal learning pedagogies’ are better understood than we recognise, and what’s needed is not further exploration of different teaching and learning styles, but exploration of employer and employee demand.
It could be argued that it is not the type of learning, or availability of opportunity that is important, especially if typologies are flawed, but the underlying demand for any learning that will make a positive difference to economic prosperity. Greater emphasis ought perhaps to be placed, as Ewart Keep suggests in his submission to the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, on establishing an analytical framework which elucidates different types of incentives acting upon learners and employers. I support his argument that education will not, on its own, ‘magic away current labour market structures, large swathes of low-paid jobs or limited levels of demand for more skilled labour’. Readers will also be aware of examples of unionised learning schemes which made reference to the initial weak demand for learning at the lower end of the labour market and occupational spectrum that Keep also identifies. In some instances, even hostility and resistance to such schemes was evident at first.
Informal learning is, for the most part, learning that is not done for accreditation, or at least accreditation is not usually the learner’s main objective. Yet current policy on ‘employability skills’ increasingly emphasises accreditation. The goal ought not to be aiming to ‘develop and accredit’ employability skills, particularly given the difficulties of doing so through mainstream accountability mechanisms calculated through the benefit of accredited and externally validated outputs. Furthermore, I would encourage government to proceed with caution in placing emphasis upon this and benchmarking or agreeing frameworks for employability. As in relation to debates about the appropriateness of accreditation, it is worth reminding ourselves what we are discussing in terms of such soft skills. These soft skills encompass attitudes, behaviours and values which are multifaceted and complex. Whatever we think about the role of informal adult learning in the workplace and its role in the acquisition of soft skills, the workplace is important as a place to learn new skills, apply skills learnt at work or elsewhere, and find out about learning in other settings. The development of an interest in informal adult learning in the workplace will spill over into our daily lives, our families and our communities. Not only do skills have a role to play in determining families’ incomes but there is growing recognition of the role that soft skills can play in social inclusion. The development of ‘soft’ language skills informally, for example, can impact significantly on social interaction and communication, thus improving the interpersonal communication which underpins peer relations and promotes wellbeing.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recognised the need for further exploration regarding the importance of ‘soft skills’ and attitudes to education in determining the skill development and educational outcomes of children from low-income backgrounds. Research by Alissa Goodman at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, due for completion in May 2009, is exploring how educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry in to school, and widen throughout childhood, by studying the formation of a broad set of cognitive and social skills, attitudes and beliefs. As relatively little is known about this, such research is crucial to help policymakers better understand the challenges low-income families face, focusing on the little understood role of soft skills, aspirations and attitudes towards education.
My own research on effective practice in tackling child poverty in one English region, whilst still at an early stage, has led me to explore the need and benefit children have for positive experiences of learning with adults. That might be more likely to occur if parents are engaging in informal learning themselves. The development of such soft skills is also more likely to support families in overcoming language barriers that otherwise may lead to low take-up of support services, benefits and tax credits. No doubt as this research evolves, it will provide some interesting insights into interventions that have most impact in these areas.
All of this is crucially important as the soft skills we learn in the workplace are sometimes the same skills we need to be on the committee of the local playgroup, listen to our children, or campaign for local services. If community empowerment is high on the Government’s agenda perhaps we should look at where individuals learn the skills to be empowered. The interface between learning, hard or soft, in the community and in the workplace has simply not been explored enough. One way forward would be to look closely at co-investment models between employers, individuals and the state. This is particularly important given evidence that those with the lowest skills are least likely to have access to training at work. It might be necessary therefore to have an approach where funding for skills follows the individual. Can current initiatives such as Skills Accounts, Train to Gain and the personal learning accounts offered by many employers be brought together to address what is essentially the same issue? Now that would be a really meaningful role for government.
Research Manager, CFE
The above article appeared as 'Softly, softly' in November's issue of Adults Learning journal.