Small businesses failing to invest in staff training; Tough enough?; Training must be refocused; Students say 'non' to French; The hard truth about soft skills; Employers and employees on track through train to gain; Language Barrier; Rewards and recognition

Over a third of small businesses are failing to invest in training their staff, according to a new survey of over 13,000 employers, by Skills for Business. This figure rises to 40 per cent among the smallest employers.

According to the research, the barriers to providing training include the financial costs, worries about demands for higher wages and work disruption. What's more, 11 per cent of small businesses, in comparison to just 3 per cent of larger businesses, see no benefits to training staff at all.

Of the estimated 4.3 million businesses in the UK, 99.3 per cent are classified as small, with SMEs accounting for over half of the UK's employment and turnover. The UK's productivity levels are already nine percentage points lower than the EU average and many experts predict they will fall even lower if employers do not develop the skills of their staff.

The report also notes that whilst the levels of productivity in China and India are still significantly below those of the UK, increasing investment in skills and technology in these countries means that the gap is likely to be narrowed in the near future, with many organisations, including the CBI, believing we are likely to be overtaken within the next generation.

Mark Fisher, chief executive of the Sector Skills Development Agency, which funds and supports the network of employer-led Sector Skills Councils, says, "These are worrying findings for the UK economy. SMEs have not got the resources of larger companies and feel they have less to gain from training staff. Our research also finds that when further education colleges have experience of providing training for local employers, these partnerships tend to be almost exclusively with large companies, who can put forward enough trainees to justify the college's effort. Most colleges are reluctant to invest time in developing relationships with SMEs who can only offer small numbers of trainees and who are seen as unlikely to be willing to pay the full cost of training in any event."

He continues, "The impact this attitude is having on our productivity levels is now evident as the UK fails to gain significant ground on its competitors. We believe that effort needs to be put in to address this situation, including providing SMEs with incentives to pool their resources to pay for training."

Tough Enough?

A-level questions should be toughened up to help universities to identify top pupils, private school head teachers have announced, as it emerged that nearly half of all results awarded to their pupils this year were A grades.

Figures for 31,700 pupils in 484 independent schools released today showed that their pupils consistently outperformed their peers in state schools, scoring double the number of top marks.

The figures reveal that 99.4 per cent of all entries from private schools received a pass grade (A-E) compared to the national average of 96.6 per cent, while 47.9 per cent of entries were awarded the top A grade, compared to 24.1 per cent nationally. A or B grades were awarded to 74.3 per cent of entries, the figures showed.

Training Must Be Refocused

There are significant skill gaps for technical and vocational skills in manufacturing and construction sectors, according to the Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) latest reports. In most cases, this gap is due to the lack of supply rather than the pace of growth in demand, many people being unwilling to work in these sectors.

Recommendations include:

1. Refocus training for the young. Most training remains focused on the best qualified, those most in need get least. 2. There is a greater need to focus on adults, especially those who have missed out on basic numeracy and literacy skills. 3. More also needs to be done to encourage employers to focus their training on future skill needs (as opposed to induction and health and safety, important as these are).

The LSC's annual reports on Skills in England contain information on the demand for, and supply of, skills as well as mismatches between demand and supply.

Students Say 'non' To French

Teachers, unions and business leaders have expressed fear and concern about the declining number of pupils taking modern languages at GCSE.

A particularly sharp decline in entries for French and German have prompted calls for a review of Government policy, which controversially made modern languages optional in 2004. The number of students taking German this year fell 14.2 per cent to 90,310 from last year, dropping below 100,000 for the first time in many years.

Meanwhile, entries in French fell by 13.2 per cent to 236,189 - a drop of more than 80,000 since 2004, when the policy came into force. The figures confirm warnings that entries in languages - perceived as more difficult than "soft" subjects such as media studies - would plummet once they became optional.

The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Employers are placing much more emphasis on the soft skills of young people such as communication skills and work ethic than on literacy and numeracy, according to new research.

The latest CIPD/KPMG quarterly Labour Market Outlook, a survey of more than 1,400 UK employers, shows that four out of 10 employers (40 per cent) put communication skills in their top three required attributes of new recruits, followed by work ethic (39 per cent) and personality (32 per cent). These ranked higher than literacy (26 per cent), numeracy (22 per cent) and formal qualifications (25 per cent).

The results conflict with research by the CBI, which firmly puts basic skills at the top of the employer agenda. Research by the lobby group found that one in three employers has to send staff for remedial training to teach them basic English and maths skills they did not learn at school.

Rebecca Clake, organisation and resourcing adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says, "These findings suggest that the education system might help close the 'employability gap' by seeking to introduce more oral-based tests and more work experience schemes."

Employers And Employees On Track Through Train To Gain

A £1bn scheme that offers employers free advice on the skills needs of their business, and subsidised training, has been rolled out across the UK by the Government.

The Train to Gain programme is managed and delivered by the LSC and gives employers access to a free Skills Broker service, offering independent and practical advice.

The service will also offer training, delivered at a time and place to suit employers with low-skilled staff, up to level 2 qualification, and further support for progression to level 3.

Train to Gain aims to help 50,000 employers and 350,000 employees a year to boost productivity and competitiveness and improve chances for low-skilled employees.

"Training providers will ensure that top quality training is adapted to the needs of employers and their staff and is delivered in a targeted and flexible way within the workplace, from basic reading and maths up to key technician level and beyond," says Alan Johnson, the education and skills secretary. "Education does not and should not stop when people leave school or college - people must be able to tap into education throughout life, whether it is academic, trade, basic or vocational."

The recent interim Leitch report painted a damning picture of the shortfall of skills in the UK. It revealed that more than one-third of adults of working age in the UK do not have a basic school-leaving qualification, and five million adults have no qualifications at all.

The report also showed that one in six adults does not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, while half do not have equivalent levels of functional numeracy. It concluded that UK skills levels will continue to compare poorly in an increasingly globalised market, and there is a risk that this will undermine the UK's long-term prosperity.

Language Barrier

To take advantage of the booming market in trade with China, schools, colleges and universities must be encouraged to add Chinese language and cultural studies to the curriculum, employers warn.

UK business leaders expect sales to China to be worth 10 per cent of global revenues, equivalent to £200bn a year, by 2009, making China the UK's most important export market, according to a report from the Hay Group.

Deborah Allday, author of the report, said: "The Government needs to take a fresh look at education to determine the best way to make the UK competitive in the global marketplace. This means introducing Chinese language teaching, and fostering an understanding of Asian culture and business practices."º

Rewards And Recognition

Job seekers place less value on corporate citizenship and diversity than on traditional benefits such as robust rewards programs and personal growth opportunities, according to a new survey by Accenture.

The survey, which queried more than 4,100 job seekers in 21 countries in North and South America, Europe and the Asia Pacific region, aimed to identify the most-valued career goals.

The findings indicate that challenging and interesting work is the most important characteristic that job seekers look for in prospective employers, selected by 60 per cent of all respondents. The potential for recognition and reward for their accomplishments was a close second selected by 58 per cent of respondents.

"We found that what is considered important to potential recruits was remarkably consistent," says John Campagnino, Accenture's global director of recruitment. "Also notable was the fact that while we know from our own employees that corporate social responsibility and diversity are important employer characteristics - things our employees demand and place high value in - the research also validated what many of us intuitively know: namely, that more tangible benefits such as rewards and recognition are most important from an external recruit's perspective."

News In Brief: Radical education overhaul needed

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has warned that the high numbers of young people leaving school without five good GCSEs is a serious block to further progress, and that the situation will only improve if the UK embarks on a radical overhaul of its education system. The OECD's new study, Education at a Glance 2006, has raised fears that Britain could be overtaken in the global marketplace unless it embarks on major education reforms, and that without access to a larger pool of graduate applicants, businesses will be forced to recruit abroad.

Does experience matter?

While employers view work experience as an opportunity to build links with potential new recruits, a survey by IRS has found that just half of those that recruit graduates say their programme encourages more applicants. Worse still, only one in three says that their work experience schemes do anything to improve the quality of job applicants, while one in four believes they have no impact.

High-tech skills gap grows

The education system is culpable for the rapidly declining number of science and engineering graduates in the UK, according to the CBI. High-tech industries will need 2.4 million new workers by 2014 to fill skills gaps, but last year only 32,000 undergraduates achieved degrees in physics, engineering or technology. CBI director-general, Richard Lambert, says that far from employers being at fault, a stripped-down science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice are to blame.

Top up fees make an impact

The cost of studying for a degree could rise to £33,500, according to a study by NatWest. The survey found that sixth-formers starting university in September will spend an estimated £33,512 after the Government introduced top up fees this autumn. But Mark Worthington, head of student and graduate banking for NatWest, says, "New students are clearly much more clued up about the financial realities of university than in previous years."