In training to take on the world

British workers are getting more training than earlier reports suggested. Anthony Gould looks at the evidence that world-class skills are being encouraged

The UK workforce’s skills are below world-class standards: they are under-educated, under-trained and underqualified. The situation, as defined by the Government-backed and now disbanded Action for Engineering Task Force 3, makes stark reading, by any standards.

However, figures from a pilot study published yesterday, indicate that one of the fundamental links in the skills chain, employee training, is not as weak as many suspected.

The study shows the average UK engineering firm invests around 4% of its payroll, or just under 1% of turnover, on training the workforce. This compares well with the old Engineering Industry Training Board levy – from which, incidentally, 95% of firms were exempt – which called for only 1% of the payroll.

The survey of 23 engineering companies was conducted by the Joint Education and Training Policy Committee of the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (Emta) and the Engineering Employers’ Federation. This body took over from the Action for Engineering taskforce, which was disbanded at the end of last year.

Also shown by the survey is that employees of engineering companies can expect around four days off-the-job training a year in addition to extensive on-the-job training.

The figures compare favourably with other countries, says Vince Harris, technical director of Emta.

In France, which has a back-door training levy, companies that do not spend at least 1.5% of their payroll on employee training are taxed. In Australia, firms must spend at least 1% of the payroll on training, and in practice, according to figures for 1992-93, the actual percentage spent was 2.6%. And in Singapore, expenditure by firms between 1988 and 1992 was 2% of the payroll.

Significantly, many of the companies have been enjoying double-digit growth in turnover over the past two years, and this is reflected in apprentice recruitment. This creates a significant expense. Training an engineering apprentice costs an employer anything from £26,000 to £40,000. The maximum funding available from the local Training and Enterprise Council is about £7,000.

According to Emta, the findings should also scotch employers’ fears that a high investment in training leads to employees leaving the company.

The pilot study involved 23 companies of various sizes and from different engineering sectors and set out to test the possibility of collecting dependable statistics that could be used for benchmarking purposes.

Harris says commitment to Investors in People (IIP) is an important measure. IIP, he says, encourages managing directors to focus on their companies’ training needs rather than how they can meet their levy requirements.

The committee sent questionnaires to 80 companies, of which 23 responded. Replies were followed up by a telephone call for clarification. Harris says although the figures are not audited, he believes they are a true reflection. Three companies wished to remain anonymous. The remainder are in the table below.

The pilot is a precursor to a People’s Skills Scoreboard, based on the well-established R&D Scoreboard. This would provide a training benchmark for engineering employers.

Over the next few months, the committee will iron out some irregularities and prepare for a large survey of engineering firms. It will attempt to take a more sectorial approach, breaking the figures down into such areas as electronics, aerospace and motor manufacturing.

The scoreboard was born out a speech by Ian Taylor, the science and technology minister, at last summer’s Training Challenge for Engineering conference in London. The event, organised by the Action for Engineering Task Force, challenged engineering firms to pledge to train at least 3% of their workforce to at least NVQ level 3, to commit to IIP, and to promote continuing professional development. So far at least 200 engineering companies have signed up to the Engineering Challenge. The conference also saw the publication of a booklet of training best practice.

Michael Sanderson, chief executive of Emta, last month said: `This year is likely to be the most successful year of engineering training for decades.’ He was referring to a predicted growth in staff taking work-based vocational training, a rise in the number taking National or Scottish Vocational Qualifications, and the prospect of upwards of 12,000 beginning Modern Apprenticeships.

There may be a long way to go before the UK skills gap is closed, but engineering firms are clearly showing their commitment to workplace training. While the chain of education from primary school to the workplace is fraught with weak links, some progress is apparent. Only when the full scoreboard is produced at the end of this year will the real level of commitment by industry be clear.

{{The pilot skills scoreboard: companies’ commitment to training

Key

A: CompanyB: No of StaffC: Investors in People accredited/committedD: Training investment % of payrollE: Training investment % of turnoverF: No of off-job training days/employeeG: Apprentice intake % of technican workforceH: Turnover £m

A B C D E F G H

BP Oil Llandarcy Refinery,West Glamorgan 270 A 5 10Alan Dick Engineering,Lancashire 44 A 14 8 6 8 1.1Dickie’s Forge, Ayr 84 0.9 3.3HMD Pumps, East Sussex 126 C 6 0.9 1.75 3 12IMI Pactrol, Lancashire 168 A 4.2 1 5 10 7.8Kaye Presteigne, Powys 220 A 1.1 0.3 10+ 14D Leonardt, Shropshire 160 C 3 5.3Lucas Electrical SystemsHeavy Duty, London 530 C 3.4 1 10Monarch AircraftEngineering, Bedfordshire 900 A 3Montupet UK, Belfast 410 C 2 12.6Nacco Materials Handling,Co Armagh 873 C 2.7 0.2 2.5 0 187Philips Medical SystemsRadiotherapy, Crawley 408 C 2.9 6.5Plashapes, Co Down 92 A 0.8 2.5 40 8Safeline, Lancashire 240 C 4.3 0.8 3 12 17.7SCI, Strathclyde 700 0.6 0.25 0.7 0 200Smiths Industries DefenceSystems, Gloucester 730 A 4 1.4 2.5 4 51Standen Engineering,Cambridgeshire 110 A 1 3 3 7.7Sulzer Pumps, Leeds 384 C 5.7 0.8 3.5 8 54.8Tensator, Buckinghamshire 205 C 0.2 4 12.5Yewlands Engineering, Essex 180 C 8 3 2 6}}