Staff feel the training squeeze

Firms' provisions for staff development take a short-term view, writes Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
FEW people today expect a lifetime career with one employer. The restructuring of work over the past decade has changed all that. Most have heard that they should be prepared for a "portfolio" career. However, the majority continue to underestimate the changes taking place and the impact these will have on their long-term training and career development needs.

People must not only expect changes in employer, but in the work they do, and in their contractual relationship with their employer. Organisations have downsized to the bare minimum, and sometimes beyond. Many have also "outsourced" all those functions not considered to be part of their core business. This means that an increasing proportion of work is done by temps, contract staff, consultants, part-timers, self-employed freelances, and others. Such flexible workers account for about half the workforce. People can expect to move in and out of full-time work and these various forms of flexible working.

Under the traditional employment relationship, based on a tacit mutual understanding or "psychological contract", employees gave their loyalty and willing effort in return for job security and career development. But employers have broken the contract. They claim that in return for hard work and loyalty, they provide training and development to improve staff's employability. But in practice few offer little more than training for the job in hand.

A growing number of employers expect staff to take responsibility for their own career development. Some provide training and development resources, but only if asked by employees. People learn best if they identify their own training needs and are committed to self-development.

It is increasingly suggested that people should invest in their own careers by paying some of the costs. The Institute of Management (IM) has said that employers have a responsibility to "nurture a culture of learning, encouraging individuals to invest in their own development, alongside training provided by the organisation".

As employers shed responsibility for their employees' development, some encourage staff to write their own personal development plans (PDPs). This is a succinct summary of the individual's personal learning needs and an action plan to meet them. Some people use it only to review the skills needed for their current job or the next rung up the ladder. But in the new work climate it is wise to include the possibility of lateral moves. The Institute for Employment Studies has said: "The concept of a PDP is of a clear develop- ment action plan for an individual. It may include plans for formal training, but is likely to have a wider set of development activities - coaching, project working or action learning, secondment, self-study or distance learning, and developmental career moves."

Formal training needs are often identified through appraisals, but these tend to take a narrow view of development. Where they are identified through development centres they tend to be more holistic, encouraging the individual to examine their personal effectiveness.

An IM study of the attitudes of over 1,300 managers, Survival of the Fittest, recommends that "individuals must become more proactive in ensuring they are trained in the skills appropriate to the future job markets. Traditional, organisation-based training, susceptible to reinforcing a narrow corporate practice and culture will not be sufficient to ensure the ongoing competitiveness of individuals in the market for jobs."

The report suggests that "individuals should seek to enhance their employability through refocusing their skill base from traditional technical skills towards the development of a range of transferable skills. These include computer literacy, interpersonal skills, communication techniques, languages, team-working, negotiation, financial management and strategic analysis."

One problem is that the design of the PDP forms sometimes constrains what employees can say. The IES studied the use of PDPs and found that while a minority of forms allow the individual to express their own development needs, others specify that needs must be defined under each of the organisation's key competencies.

On the one hand employers are saying "you must take responsibility for your own career development", but then they try to control employees' personal development plans. Both need to be clear about who owns the PDP, who has the right to see it, and what it will be used for.

Some employers want to dictate what to include in PDPs. Some want to see them and include them in the organisation's promotion and job-filling process. Both approaches contradict the spirit of PDPs. In the former PDPs are misleading; in the latter, people are less open about their needs. As the IBS points out: 'If the organisation wants employees to own their development, it will have to achieve a balance between encouragement and control."

Although problems exist over ownership, content, control and confidentiality, the IBS found that "employees and managers were mainly enthusiastic about the PDP approach".