Training, learning and development is a journey. If the escalating debate about vocational education and learning for employment has taught a single lesson to those responsible for ‘growing’ their workers, it’s that gaining new skills for a particular role is a continuous process, with no fixed duration, that must be as accessible as possible. While no two industries are the same, many challenges and the principles of their solutions remain common.
Training journeys and the beginning of employment for young people leaving education are becoming more obviously one and the same and flexibility is needed on both sides. Large employers need to be more honest and open minded about the academic backgrounds and skills they really need from candidates; equally, applicants need to think longer term about career prospects and valuable training in sectors and companies that may not be so obvious or far from their preferred or immediate choices.
The return of apprenticeships in a much broader, less youth-defined form is offering that flexibility to both businesses and joiners. It’s a result of a rude awakening in recent years that the country might be facing a skills gap, alongside a similar epiphany among school leavers that a £27,000 degree, plus other debt, might not deliver the earning power promoted by the 20th century Human Capital Model.
It would be naïve to point blindly to other European countries for examples of getting it right. Both Germany and the Netherlands have seen inconsistent take-up in their long established vocational high schools, but their very existence has still helped to build world-leading apprenticeship programmes further down the line in those countries; Denmark too. They provide employers with a relatively steady supply of skilled labour, at many levels, in countries with modern, successful industrial bases.
The UK’s private sector employer base is far more fragmented than many might believe. More than 60% of the nation’s workforce is employed by SMEs, which in turn generate more than £2 trillion in turnover. A large band above that includes significant private businesses – such as our own major logistics business, employing [more than 5,000 people]. Yet the perception of the learning and training routes preferred by employers and aimed for by potential employees could be argued as being somewhat disproportionately influenced by the prejudices of FTSE100 companies’ graduate schemes and the large professions.
The ’new’ apprenticeship system is setting high standards, providing good visibility of earnings and career progression, and developing its own prestige in the workplace. It is achieving this, to a great extent, by offering a more ‘modular’, multi-level approach to continuous training that may be accessed by 18 year olds and more senior members of staff alike. It is able to combine the very first steps of on-the-job training with initial study, while establishing a roadmap of professional development encompassing technical, analytical and management skills.
Logistics, like other parts of the economy that aren’t necessarily front of mind, may be a good example of how this new approach to training is working. Our business and others in the sector have migrated from a traditional transport function to a complex element of the supply chain. This progression has required specialist training throughout the organisation and we have provided apprenticeship opportunities in all areas, from IT to warehousing, transport and fleet, HR, marketing and operational management.
It has also promoted diversity, flexibility and granted access to a wider pool of talented potential staff. Modern, long term vocational training is able to accommodate a huge variety of motivating factors behind the career plans and aspirations of individuals. In sectors, particularly those in or serving industry which are historically perceived to be male dominated, the system has already seen women advance steadily in their careers and prepare them to succeed at the top of their organisations.
It is down to employers to take greater control, acting centrally and locally in their organisations to provide access to overdue new thinking on career-long training. This approach will serve industry and our economy.
Kay Simpson, HR Director at Menzies Distribution
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