Why we never really leave school

In-service training is a vital part of career development for staff, writes Philip Schofield
Most of us would be alarmed if we went to our doctor and found they were unaware of the latest advances in medicine because they had not had any formal education or training since qualifying 25 ago. Yet this is the situation in many management and professional occupations.

Keeping abreast of current knowledge is a major problem in many areas of employment. At the personal level we may find our expertise outdated, and so risk redundancy. At the corporate level, failure to keep abreast of systems and technology makes us less competitive and puts the business at risk.

If organisations invested in the regular up-dating of employees' expertise, they would not only be likely to maintain or improve their competitiveness, but also maintain staff motivation. However, many employers do not. According to a Department of Education and Em- ployment report, Lifetime Learning - A Policy Framework, only one in three have done any learning in the past three years, and a third have done none since leaving school.

A growing number of professional bodies recognise the problem and expect their members to undertake several days of approved learning activities each year. These approved learning schemes are known either as Continuing Professional Development (CPD) or Continuing Professional Education (CPE) programmes. Some are mandatory, many are not.

Among those with such programmes are accountants, actuaries, engineers, lawyers and management consultants. Their programmes usually involve a minimum number of hours' learning each year. These may involve attending training courses, distance learning programmes, in-company schemes and projects, seminars and conferences, but also reading text books and professional journals.

CPE is mandatory for most chartered accountants. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has a CPE "points" system. Three points are given for an hour's organised "structured" CPE, and one point for an hour of personal "unstructured" CPE. The institute, which issues guidelines for its members, considers 150 points a year a reasonable target. It recommends that at least 40 per cent of these points are earned through structured activities.

The Institute of Actuaries and the Faculty of Actuaries have a joint CPD scheme. This is mandatory for those who need a practising certificate to carry out statutory duties, but all actuaries are encouraged to meet the requirements of the scheme. These are a minimum of 15 hours of formal CPD a year, plus an average of at least one hour a week of informal GPD.

The Engineering Council holds the Register of Chartered Engineers, Incorporated Engineers and Engineering Technicians. Applications for the register are handled by the 39 individual engineering institutions. Institutions can remain in the council only if they have an "obligatory" CPD scheme. However, each institution operates its own scheme and standards differ.

CPD is taken seriously by engineers. The 1997 Survey of Profess- ional Engineers and Technicians, which questioned more than 10,000 people, found that more than 30 per cent had an action plan for their professional development, and almost 62 per cent kept a record of their development.

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".

The Law Society has one of the less demanding schemes. It requires solicitors to undertake 16 hours a year on CPD in their first three years and then 48 hours in each subsequent three-year period.

With so many differing schemes, and little or no checking that individuals are following the programmes, are they of any value? Should they be supplemented by examinations to re-test professional competence once, or more often, during one's career?

Mid-career examinations are almost certainly unrealistic for most institutions. After qualification, most professionals specialise in one aspect of their profession, and it would be difficult to set examinations which test the professional competence of these people. It would also be hard, but not impossible, to check whether or not members are satisfying the minimum standards for CPE or CPD laid down by their institution.

Although the controls are limited, this does not mean the programmes are without value. The fact that institutions require their members to undertake these programmes will in itself be sufficient incentive for many. Employers and colleagues will be familiar with the standards laid down, and will usually be aware if an individual is observing them or not.

Moreover, many managers recognise the need to keep up-to- date in their chosen field. A study by the Manchester School of Management at UMIST for the Institute of Management, recently found that almost nine in 10 managers think that they will need new skills in the next five years. Moreover, one in three thought that they had received insufficient training in the past 12 months.

Employers increasingly expect managers to take responsibility for their own career development and training. Although many claim they will provide the resources once their employees have identified their needs, in practice many will provide training that is only directly relevant to the job. This means that career development aimed at updating skills and knowledge is left to the individual and to his or her professional institution. Even if employers did do enough, we need the institutions to set the standards for continuing professional competence.