Learning is a job for life

INDEPENDENT CAREERS: We all agree acquiring new skills is important. But are employers co-operating? Philip Schofield reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Business leaders, professional institutes, educationists and the Government constantly stress the importance of people committing themselves to lifetime learning. Is this yet another fad, or is there a real need? And are those spokespeople supporting the idea with money and practical support?

The need is real enough. Our world is changing fast and much knowledge soon goes out of date. People must constantly learn and develop new skills.

The globalisation of business activity and competition, with the growth of new centres of manufacturing and services, has led to Western employers cutting costs to raise productivity. Automation and information technology have brought about a sharp fall in unskilled and clerical jobs. However, the numbers of professional, managerial and technical jobs are growing. The workforce is becoming better educated, and also has more vocational qualifications.

Companies now have a core workforce of semi-permanent full-time employees, with more and more non-core activities being carried out by peripheral workers such as freelances, contract workers, part-timers, temps, teleworkers and others. Instead of jobs for life in return for loyalty and hard work, employers are offering "employability" - giving individuals a portfolio of regularly updated and enhanced knowledge and skills, so that they are attractive to other employers when their current job ends.

However, though most people believe learning is important, only a minority appear to undertake any once they have left full-time-education. A report on lifetime learning, a policy framework produced by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) says only one in three adults has done any learning in the last three years, and a third have done none since leaving school. The report says the Government can encourage lifetime learning through "effective partnership" between government offices, employers and employees, local authorities, TECs, colleges and so on. However, the Government appears to be limiting any further contribution to supporting such partnership activity.

It is unfortunate that the Government is also imposing a charge of pounds l,000 a year on all but the poorest higher education students. It may be necessary, but sends the wrong messages about the national importance of lifetime learning.

The Government suggests individuals should invest in their own lifetime learning through Career Development loans. But those responding to the DfEE report suggest that "it may take a long time to develop a culture in which personal financial investment in learning over a lifetime is the norm".

Some professional institutions are now encouraging lifetime learning through continuing professional development (CPD) or continuing professional education (CFE) programmes.

The Institute of Management Consultants requires its members to "affirm that they are spending at least 35 hours per year on recognised continuing professional development activities. CFE is mandatory for most chartered accountants, who have an annual target of 50 hours a year of structured activities. The Law Society requires solicitors to undertake an undemanding 16 hours a year on CPD in their first three years and then a total of 48 hours in each subsequent three-year period,

The education world has perhaps done most to foster lifetime learning, offering part-time and distance learning courses, including higher degrees.

What of employers? Sadly, far from doing more, they are actually doing less. The Industrial Society's annual survey into training budgets showed employers spending 35 per cent less per head on training than the year before. Moreover, the proportion of the annual wages/salary bill spent on training fell by almost a fifth, from 3.66 per cent to 214 per cent. "Too many employers appear to be paying lip-service only to the idea of providing employability training as a substitute for job security"