Mary Dejevsky: The real lesson of the Heathrow humiliation

Companies invest in buildings and infrastructure, but sadly not in their employees
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The Independent Online

The Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, deftly evaded public association with the Terminal 5 disaster yesterday by dispatching her aviation minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, to the Commons to face the music. To an almost empty House – perhaps MPs, like so many others, were stuck at their weekend destinations, sans toothbrush, sans clothes, sans nearly everything – the hapless minister revealed that the latest tally of "stored" luggage was now 28,000 pieces, and expressed fervent hope that British Airways and the British Airports Authority would learn lessons from the debacle. But not, of course, before they had sorted it all out.

To which, I am sure, we can all say "hear, hear". Without presuming to conclude what those lessons might be, however, I will hazard that one will concern staff training. Of the many complaints voiced by employees and passengers alike, lack of preparation for the big day loomed large. From a shortage of parking space through tardy security vetting, to the screens and conveyor belts that no one knew how to work, the impression was that senior managers had banked, quite unrealistically, on it all coming together on the relevant morning.

The operational staff need not be let off the hook completely. As some of the shop workers pointed out, they got into work on time, so how come the baggage handlers and check-in staff found it so hard? Did they actually take up the training provided? Some of the baggage-handlers may well have been fathers, brothers, sons etc. of the women made redundant by BA's catering contractor, Gate Gourmet, in 2005. There was a stroppiness underlying the self-justification that suggested less than total dedication to the greater glory of T5.

That said, both BA and BAA have chequered records as employers and, regrettably, they are not unique among British companies. Even where there is a willingness to invest in spectacular new buildings or hi-tech infrastructure, nothing like the same investment seems to be made in employees.

One part of the explanation – the smaller part – may be the availability of trained, or trainable, labour from elsewhere: Jamaican and Filipina nurses; textile workers from Bangladesh; doctors from India and Pakistan. The recent influx of Central Europeans, many of them skilled or highly educated, has been a boon for business, if not for less well-educated Britons competing for the same jobs. As Poland's economy rebounds and the pound falls against the euro, "our" Poles are starting to leave. Perhaps training will then finally rise up the political and business agenda. Just don't bet on it too soon.

For the greater part of the explanation reflects an ingrained view that certain jobs are essentially low-skilled, and will remain so. They are often allocated by word of mouth and personal connections rather than competition – or, increasingly, in batches, through agencies – and the assumption is that the employee comes ready primed for his or her particular function. If training is required, it is a couple of days' induction.

The Government would reject absolutely that it discourages training. Did not Tony Blair harp on about the "knowledge economy"? And Gordon Brown picked up the baton. Addressing the CBI last year, he spoke at length about how Britain, as a small country, would never be able to compete with the rest of the world on low skills, so had to develop a "high skills" economy, strong on "high value-added services and manufacturing".

The trouble is that the practical message emanating from Whitehall in recent years has been quite different. Not only have would-be graduates had to take out loans to fund themselves through college, but established professions have been sliced and diced to create new groups of lower-skilled, cheaper, sub-professionals. Qualified teachers have been supplemented with teaching assistants. Police officers send cheaper community support officers on to the beat, while the GP service has been diluted with "nurse practitioners".

The skills of these new sub-professionals may be entirely adequate to the job they are required to do. But their proliferation – from 60,000 to more than 160,000 in 10 years in the case of teaching assistants – gives the impression of a cheapskate nation that resists paying for properly trained professionals.

And if we are so heedless of our professions, is it any wonder that we expect to get our carpenters, our plasterers, our hospital cleaners – and, yes, our baggage-handlers – semi-trained and on the cheap? Or that they take so little pride in their work, and so little responsibility when things goes wrong? Britain should be skilling up, not skilling down, and Heathrow's T5 humiliation is an object lesson in why.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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