Are we expecting too much of workplace learning?

Written by Richard Griffin on 14 August 2013

Consider the following statement from a UK government publication published this spring  - 'Continuing Vocational Training is recognised both by the European Union and European national governments as a key contribution to competitiveness and productivity, to adaptation of workforces to changing patterns of production and work organisation, and to social cohesion.' That's quite a list.To be fair the government puts it (well our) money where it's mouth is. Despite living in straightened times, the recent UK Comprehensive Spending Review increased investment in apprenticeships for example. What bothers me as I have written before is that we have appeared to have moved to a situation where workplace learning is expected to deliver as much - maybe more - than schools and colleges. No longer is it enough to deliver health and safety training we now need to deliver social cohesion as well!

At one level this does make sense. The changing nature of work makes it unlikely that the knowledge you acquired at 18 or 21 will still be directly relevant to you or your work when you are 40, 50 or (as we are all living longer) 70. The IT skills I use in my job, including to write this blog, were learnt at work not school (I hit 50 last month).

If the workplace is to become THE focus of learning through our lives, what are the implications? Take functional skills as an example. Should employers be expected to support their workforce to acquire necessary levels of numeracy and literacy? It is a perineal complaint of employers that school leavers do not have good enough functional skills. If this deficit is to be made up through workplace learning what is the best way to do this? There has to be a world of difference between learning to write and count at school compared to essential skills acquired through a vocational route. I frequently hear complaints that the functional skills taught through apprenticeships are not equal to GCSE even though the levels are the same - in theory. How then do we deliver sound vocational essential skills and what does this mean for trainers?

Another worry as workplace learning takes centre stage is - and lets be honest here - employers don't always get it right. A recent survey by learndirect found that 64 per cent of employers felt their employees lack of management skills were holding their business back but only 40 per cent trained their staff in such skills. What's gone wrong here then? If employers can't deliver core training that benefits their business should we really be placing so much trust in vocational education to save the day?

There seems to me a lot of tensions and contradictions within skills policy and practice. Employers want to lead vocational training but frequently follow government funding streams. We know that access to workplace learning is uneven between employee groups, employers and sectors. This means uneven access to the benefits. Should government address this, for example, through a legal requirement to train or leave things to employers (the point of vocational training is to meet business needs after all)?

I am not alone in advocating the specific and wider benefits of workplace learning while at the same time worrying that we are expecting too much of it. If we really expect training to deliver productivity, competitiveness, resilient workers, social capital and the rest and do that from the start of someone's career to the end - a span of potentially 60 years, then we need a proper discussion and debate about what this means and what works. My worry is that if we do not, then workplace learning will inevitably fall short of the massive expectations placed on it and that's in no ones interest.

About the author
Richard Griffin is director of the Institute of Vocational Learning and Workplace Research at Buckinghamshire New University. He can be contacted at:

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