Train to gain

John Kerr explains that in  order to address current concerns surrounding the UK’s skills shortage, we need to first understand the reasons behind it, andthen willingly take action to do something about it

A report released by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) and KPMG, confirms that the UK is experiencing a significant deficit in competently skilled workers in the construction and utilities industries. Indeed, if current trends continue, it is estimated that up to half of the existing employees in these sectors will leave by 2023. The report concludes that this situation can only be rectified if such skills gaps are filled quickly and effectively.

Similar concerns exist in the oil and gas sector and will be brought to the fore if the UK Government’s proposals for widespread shale gas drilling are enacted. Suddenly, the true extent of the skills gap will be laid bare.

It shouldn’t take such extreme threats to understand that a well-trained workforce, can bring huge benefits to employers and the wider economy alike. Such a capable workforce will not only support economic growth and future jobs but will also help to secure a high level of internationally competitive skills base that will strengthen UK industry as a whole.

Awareness of the problem is clear, but why has it occurred in the first place? I believe there are a number of reasons to explain why the skills shortage has become so severe. The impact of the recession, and its associated economic uncertainty, is naturally assumed to be the main cause of any skills crisis, but there are consequential issues at play that better explain the exact reasons behind the current situation. Take, for example, the findings published by UKCES, which suggest that the issues are rooted in recently diminished ‘off the job’ training, together with a reduction in training intensity. These factors have consequentially led to the creation of a stagnant workforce and one that lacks the skillsets to perform to required standards.

Put simply, insufficient investment has been made for too long. The only way now to begin filling the growing skills gaps is to do more, and quickly, or else the disparity between abilities and needs will only increase further.

The solution, from Develop Training’s point of view, is to get workers trained, or re-trained, and that these needs have never been more pressing.

Apprenticeships are one solution for employers to address short- and long-term skills shortages, through the implementation of bespoke, managed, programmes or similar packages of individually tailored Non-Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).

Apprenticeships form a key part of the Government’s economic strategy but recent statistics suggest that there has actually been a year-on-year fall in apprenticeship programmes. One of the leading reasons as to why the adoption of apprenticeship schemes has fallen by the way side in recent years is funding. The complexity of finding means of financial support, in addition to appropriate frameworks to meet companies’ specific needs can be a hindrance.

I believe that this trend can be curbed if specialist thirdparty training providers are brought on-board. The right training partner can offer a versatile, cost-effective, and highly successful means of recruiting new operatives into the industry through either an Apprenticeship route or, more importantly, by retraining experienced practitioners who are seeking, or needing, a career change. Such partners can also serve as valuable guides within what is often seen as a training minefield with its complexities of funding, accreditations, nationally recognised frameworks and teaching methods.

Take an emerging concept, such as the Government’s commitment to Trailblazer Apprenticeships, which provides a robust and practical means of boosting skills in the workforce. This scheme will give employers greater control over the planning and implementation of their apprenticeship schemes, and heighten the need for appropriate training providers.

For this particular route to be effective, however, companies need to have the right guidance and introduce schemes that are tailored to address companies’ specific skills gaps.

I feel that this is where Develop Training excels. Using its extensive experience in the facilitation and delivery of apprenticeships Develop Training has delivered more than 1000 apprenticeships for its key clients, such as Scotia Gas Networks and McNicholas, and boasts a retention and success rate of over 95 per cent.

We take what companies need most into account and develop high quality on-site and off-site training designed to meet new requirements for Government funding and backed by rigorous independent assessment. The result: the creation of a capable and highly skilled workforce.

In discussing the apprentice market, I am not only referring to typical apprenticeship schemes for 16-24 year olds, where much of the Government’s current focus, and available funding, lies. Far from it, there are also opportunities for employees to take advance of 24+ learning loans and employers to re-skill their existing workforce. The cross training or up-skilling of employees can also be achieved through NVQ routes or similar individually tailored learning programmes.

Balfour Beatty is one utility organisation, and a client of Develop Training that is putting this approach into practice. Balfour Beatty understands that training isn’t solely for school leavers and career starters, but a can provide long-term solutions to help keep develop and retain an existing workforce.

Earlier this year, Develop Training embarked on a pilot programme with Balfour Beatty to help retrain operatives working within its reduced water business in order to give them skills which could be applied to its growing gas operations.

As is often the case with big businesses, there are imbalances of work, which mean that one division may need operatives more than another. At Balfour Beatty, a down turn in the water industry is leading to operatives of that sector being cross-trained, so they can readily turn their hands to work in the sister gas division, which is experiencing a labour shortage. As such, redundancies and the associated costs of severance packages can be avoided, as can the expense of recruitment drives once work within the water sector returns.

Utilising the services of specialist training providers can pay off in terms of outsourcing the management of programmes by giving a greater focus to the essentials of training apprentices.

These can also be combined with cost saving measures, such as the integration with electronic portfolio (e-portfolio) systems. E-portfolio offers the collection of evidence for vocational qualifications in a digital format, giving assessors real time access to evidence uploaded to the interface. It is a more interactive and more efficient format allowing assessors a greater ability to track progress, provide feedback, and cross reference evidence of training.

I believe that with solutions such as these within Develop’s training remit, we can help any employer to improve the quality and achievement rate of their apprenticeship scheme by removing administrative burdens, recommending optimum course components and delivering high-quality training and assessment. Combined, this expertise will deliver an outcome whereby employers can concentrate on developing their apprentices into skilled and valuable workforce members.

While I see a solution in sight, I do still feel concerned that apprentices in the wider sense are still to achieve their full potential within the UK economy. This is supported by findings, such as those reported Eurotrade Magazine, which notes that, for apprenticeship training to deliver tangible impact, industries must raise their intake figures significantly.

It just goes to show that equipping individuals with the skills to work competently, legally and safely cannot be acquired overnight. Time, training and financial investments all need to be sought and are equally critical.

I believe the scope that successful apprenticeship schemes possess is tremendous – and the reason why historically, the apprentice concept has been so popular and subscribed. In years past, entire company divisions would have been dedicated to the recruitment, training and qualification process of the apprentice scheme, with sizeable numbers of applicants filling and succeeding within the roles, benefiting the economy and keeping the skillset both relevant and buoyant.

However, as businesses diversify or scale back expenditure, and as SMEs attempt to manage on reduced workforces, it has become increasingly difficult to successfully implement well-structured apprenticeship schemes from within the host organisation.

There needs to be more awareness and ‘take-up’ of the modern, practical and affordable solutions offered by training providers such as Develop Training, as a route to not only alter the success figures, but create opportunities for the skills gap to close. With it, employers can boost the image of their industry as an attractive career path for the next generation in schools and colleges.

So what is the advice for employers when choosing the best route or provider? In essence, employers should look for a company that understands the current regulatory landscape in which apprenticeship programmes and similar schemes are evolving. They need to understand trailblazer apprenticeships, funding, and the need to receive a return on investment. This is exactly what Develop Training offers. Develop Training has the insight to help companies identify their particular skills shortages, and can then offer specific development and training programmes to address them. In doing so, courses not only develop a person’s use and essential knowledge, but serve to benefit the economic progression currently within reach for our country.

Develop Training
John Kerr is Operations Director at Develop Training, the UK’s leading accredited provider of compliance, technical and safety training. It supports over 7000 firms with their training needs and its clients include some of the UK’s largest and best-known organisations from the utilities and construction, defence, healthcare, facilities management and telecommunication sectors.

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Issue 125 October 2015