Despite a record number of students passing A levels, employers are less than impressed with the standards of their new recruits. But what are they doing to help raise skills levels? Duncan Brown reports

If the cuckoo’s call heralds winter’s end, summer’s close is marked by the annual ritual of exam results stimulating employer complaints about the declining skills and standards of school and college leavers.
Although a record 96.2% of students passed their A levels, the education system is “failing teenagers and taxpayers”, roared the CBI last month. Forty per cent of employers surveyed thought school leavers had insufficient grasp of the ‘three Rs’. In response, the government will adjust school league tables by 2008 to focus on English and maths results.
But just how important are qualifications to the UK economy? And what are employers doing to address skills shortfalls and close the productivity gap with our major international rivals? Chancellor Gordon Brown says UK companies have a vital role to play in “raising skill levels to create a more flexible and productive workforce”.
A new guide, produced by the CIPD in conjunction with the Department for Education and Skills, Measuring the Contribution of Skills to Business Performance, concludes that skills make a significant difference. Each extra qualification level raises productivity by at least 5% - and the UK lags behind the USA in the proportion of employees with degrees. Compared to France and Germany, a low proportion of our workforce has intermediate level, particularly work-related, vocational qualifications. Studies have shown higher workforce skills associated with higher value-added products, higher levels of innovation and the high performance of small businesses.
Yet this explains only part of the productivity deficit. Economist John Philpott says: “To match our overseas rivals, the UK has not only to invest more in the skills of the workforce, but also make considerably better use of this investment.”
Current trends reflect this. More than a third of the 700 organisations in the CIPD’s annual training survey believe their workforce requires higher skills; more than half are helping employees to obtain National Vocational Qualifications and a fifth increased training budgets last year. But it is the changing nature of investments that is most significant. While traditional, off-the-job classroom-based training is still common, the increased budgets are fuelling rapid growth in a more varied, flexible and job-related set of initiatives: internal coaching (up 51%) and mentoring (42%); computer-based e-learning (up 47%) and ‘action-learning’ projects (used by 27%). So why this trend, which the CIPD’s Martyn Sloman describes as “the shift from training to learning”?
What matters in our rapidly changing and competitive economy is not so much the level of qualifications but how skills and knowledge are used. Lord Browne of BP explains: “To generate extraordinary value, a company has to learn better than its competitors and apply that knowledge.”
Fact-dominated classroom-based training soon becomes outdated when the capacity to adapt is so critical to corporate success. Successful organisations persuade, encourage and enable their employees to learn how to achieve the strategic goals that help them learn how to learn. As Lorna Mckee, the area HR manager for Hilton in Belfast, told us: “We can’t train everyone to do everything: the emphasis is to learn, adapt and apply that knowledge where they work.”
Karen McKibben, training manager for Harvey Nichols, explicitly rejected a generic training course for sales assistants. That elusive ability to ‘read’ and serve the customer can be learned, but may not be trainable. Instead, it has introduced the brand champion approach of immediate feedback and support from peers and managers to develop and reinforce excellent performance. Staff are given recognition awards, while new assistants and lower performers are supported by specialist advisers and buddies.
Given these trends, the government might be worried less by the three Rs and more by the CBI’s finding that half of employers believe school leavers lack core skills such as problem-solving, team-working and communications. Indeed, the CBI’s criticism may simply be reinforcing an over-emphasis in our education system on facts and qualifications and a lack of attention to learning and skills application. Anthony Selsdon, headmaster at Brighton College, laments this current policy emphasis in which “we are teaching our children less to think than to excel in exams”. What do you think?
n Duncan Brown is assistant director general, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development