Invest in excellence

To ensure UK industry retains a world-class workforce it is imperative that we improve training and education before it is too late, argues Bob Gibbon


I am often asked ‘What if we train our staff and they leave?’ For me, the simple response is ‘What if you don’t train them and they stay?’

Companies fear investing in employees in case they leave, and take the benefit of that investment with them. Surely a far larger threat comes from growing a manufacturing workforce which does not learn, develop or deliver the quality required to ensure the future prosperity of UK industry?

We are at a significant turning point for UK manufacturing. Rapidly growing economies around the world are generating considerably more qualified manufacturing specialists than this country. Where they previously traded only on low-cost labour, new economies will soon be able to fight the battle for the best skilled staff as well. We have an obligation to improve the training and education landscape for UK manufacturing and address the issue before it is too late.

To do this we must overcome three key challenges which the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing has been working on since its inception in January.

First, we must address the ‘hit and miss’ skills landscape employers have to navigate. There are some excellent examples of business education out there today — companies are implementing world-class skills, and training providers are delivering outstanding content through quality assessors/trainers. But they are islands of excellence. There is a lot of good and a lot of bad out there and separating the two can be daunting for the uninitiated.

Second, there is a lack of clear communication about the wider business benefits that better skills and learning can provide. The result is that companies are keen to implement training but often only plan for a short-term change rather than using skills strategically to improve the long-term future of their business.

Finally, we must ensure training products and services are driven by employers. Too many existing training products and services have not been developed with industry’s needs in mind. This makes it even more difficult for companies to find courses and services which fit their needs.

The problem is not that businesses don’t want to improve through education, but they are simply confused by what confronts them when they look for high quality training.

What’s ultimately required is a threefold change:

We must identify, embrace, and encourage the adoption of existing excellent training products and services, combining them into a coherent progression route for national manufacturing skills that acts as a beacon of security for employers.

Identifying relevant training should not be a minefield. Quality should be well signposted, giving businesses a simple route map to using skills strategically and successfully. Employers should be able to recognise the most appropriate path down which to take their staff and see the potential benefits for their organisation before they even commit.

We must enable better channels of communication between employers and the training and education community to ensure demand signals from industry are being received. Regardless of how clear the training and education landscape becomes, without a set of targeted industrial skills we will always miss the target.

The training community must clearly demonstrate the links between better skills and wider business benefits. More employers need to recognise how learning and skills support can improve the future prosperity of their businesses. Developing people’s potential today is about more than sending them on courses. Skills are central to business productivity and efficiency, so developing modern skills often involves dedicated business consultancy, determining progression routes to achieving high levels of productivity, and enabling the growth of a business through new accelerated learning practices.

Importantly the government has recognised, and is acting upon, the issue in conjunction with the Learning and Skills Council. In its recent response to last year’s Leitch Review (called World Class Skills), the government set aggressive targets for organisations such as our own to ensure the quality delivery of quality training content that directly meets the needs of employers.

The work has begun in earnest, but its success requires the collaboration of various parties in a traditionally fragmented industry. The training providers need to ask what employers want, and employers need to become more concerned about how to train the staff they have rather than continue worrying what happens to those who decide to leave.


Bob Gibbon is managing director of the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing