Training: Widening skills gap casts a shadow over recovery

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FEARS that a skills shortage will emerge as a restraint on renewed economic growth have been fuelled by a report in last month's Employment Gazette which drew from the findings in the annual labour force survey. One key observation was that the proportion receiving job-related training had declined during the recession to 14.9 per cent, or 3.16 million workers, down from 15.4 per cent in the comparable period of 1990.

However, according to the CBI, employers continue to recognise the importance of training even in a recession. Its July quarterly review said that despite the drop in business confidence, companies planned to increase spending on training and retraining in the year ahead. It added: 'A greater than average increase in this spending is planned by firms with 200 to 5,000 employees, but companies with more than 5,000 employees expect only a very modest expansion.'

Employers' response to the Government's 'Investors in People' initiative, aimed at boosting the training of employees, has so far proved disappointing, though. The IIP award is made when a predetermined proportion of the employer's workforce obtains National Vocational Qualifications. These qualifications must not be linked to any one form of training course or type of training.

The objective is to raise an employee's performance in a particular occupation to a certain level. The performance in that job is usually assessed by the employer. So far, fewer than 80 companies have been awarded the IIP mark, against a target of 6,000 large and medium-sized employers by 1996.

The Government has set up a number of training initiatives. Its youth training, employment training and apprenticeship schemes account for about 10 per cent of all employment-related training. The Government has guaranteed a youth training place to every unemployed teenager aged 16 to 17. YT allowances are the only benefit available to these unemployed teenagers, since the removal of income support.

However, the Employment Gazette report noted that nearly 200,000 on YT, ET and trade apprenticeships did not feel they had received job-related training.

One unemployed person who supported this view of the available training courses commented: 'Some of the courses are quite interesting, but I cannot see any way that I would get a job at the end.'

The Government's enthusiasm for training does not extend to support for the proposed EC directive that would extend employers' training facilities to part-time workers. The Department of Employment states: 'We in Britain believe the best place for decisions over access to and rights to training is at a company level. The most effective incentive for employers to train is a knowledge and understanding of the skill needs of their organisations, related to business requirements.'

The Government recognises that training can prove expensive for employers and is considering ways of helping them to protect their investment. One possibility is that legislation will be introduced to enable employers to recover the costs of training from employees who move to other jobs. The White Paper 'People, Jobs and Opportunity' considers changes to the law which 'make it clear that it is open to employers and employees to agree that if an employee left his employment prematurely after the employer had made a substantial investment in his training, the employer could recover a proportion of the costs'. At present, the former employer can sue if he can show that the new employer induced the employee to breach his contact by leaving before the expiry of the notice period.

Measures which discourage job mobility cannot form part of the long-term plan to retain international competitiveness. As the problem of an ageing population grows, ensuring greater job mobility is likely to prove as important as enhanced levels of training.