Has it really come to this?
After bold claims that employers would be forced to provide training to raise the UK’s skills base, after the Accounting for People Task Force (2003), the Leitch Review (2006), after the effort put into the ‘Train to Gain’ scheme (2007 onwards), and this April’s setting up of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, what do we have?
The ‘Right to Train’.
A right that is no right at all, and use to neither employer nor employee.
As a hodge podge of compromise it couldn’t have been calculated to introduce any more confusion while doing less to address the UK’s skills needs.
‘Right to Train’ is the name the media has attached to proposals outlined in the Queen’s speech in May and last week by Skills Secretary John Denham. These are – more modestly and more realistically – entitled ‘Time to Train’.
This confusion over the naming of the proposals exemplifies what is wrong with them: poorly thought through, poorly presented and poorly received.
The idea is that just as employees have a right to request flexible working which can only be refused on valid business grounds, the same right should be extended to time for training.
This approach is simply inadequate.
Inadequate for meeting the skills needs of the individual, the employer or the country. Yet still enough to induce fear in employers that this is a budget-breaker’s charter: a deadly cocktail of bureaucracy and open-ended commitment to spending. So, one week after the launch we have skills minister David Lammy engaged in damage limitation with Personnel Today:
Employers would not be obliged to pay an employees’ salary while they were undertaking training, or to organise or pay for the training, but we would expect many to choose to do so.
Expect many to choose to do so?
Is this how the National Health Service was set up by Labour? ‘We don’t expect doctors not to charge patients, but we expect many to choose to do so’ ? Is this how the Conservatives took us into Europe? ‘We don’t know if all countries will drop trade barriers, but we expect many to choose to do so’ ?
You don’t bring about major change by expecting that others will choose to help you. You go out and make it happen. Asking employees to decide which training might be good for the business (the only sort that business will back) is inadequate. Asking employees to pay for it themselves or to find the government funding is absurd.
This is a weak initiative that has been poorly presented, leaving ministers like Lammy desperately back-pedalling and trying to appease both those rightly wanting more training for the under-skilled and those employers rightly concerned that meeting obligations will be a time-consuming cost they can do without.
Employees won’t know what training to go for. Those employers not already commited to training (and many are – they spend £38bn on it annually) won’t be persuaded to choose to change their ways.
The effort that has gone into preparing this consultation and then reparing the damage it has created should have gone into improving the Train to Gain initiative. Initally sceptical about this, I changed my views after writing an article on it for IT Training Magazine and interviewing the LSC’s Jaine Clarke. The scheme is imperfect, but is heading in the right direction, and has shown that it is capable of positive change in response to criticism. Nonetheless, it has a way to go: about £115m set aside for Train to Gain was unclaimed last year. My advice to the government: get this one right first.
My advice to anyone else interested in the UK’s skills base would be: get involved in the Time to Train consultation and make your voice heard.