Taking the brake off

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Written by Richard Griffin on 11 June 2014
How do you know when the economy is turning the corner? When you start reading a rash of reports warning that skill shortages are holding recovery back. The latest from IPPR, published at the start of June, does make the important point that demand for low and medium level skills in the near future will be greater than for higher level ones. Bluntly, we need less workers with degrees and more with vocational qualifications. Shockingly a fifth of employees in low-skilled jobs have a degree. While there are plenty of occupations requiring a degree, lots do not including those at the top. A survey in 2006 by the Federation of Small Businesses found only a quarter of business owners had been to university. 
 
The message from IPPR is that we need a better and stronger UK vocational education system. I would add one more need to that - we also require a simpler one. The present system is cluttered and fragmented. At the top we have the government setting policy. We have education providers (lots) delivering the training. We have awarding bodies who offer and award qualifications. Actually we have 168 awarding bodies from ABC Awards to WSET Awards. We have firms needing training and we have learners learning. I nearly forgot we also have regulators and sector skills councils. Things are simpler elsewhere. Perhaps the complexity of the system is one of the reasons we seem to have such a mismatch between the supply and demand for skills.
 
It’s not only the economy that is on the up, training activity may be on the rise too. Last year training budgets in US grew by 15 per cent. How though do we know that investment is delivering a return? One way is to ask the people affected by it. A recent article by Hassan and colleagues in the Advances in Developing Human Resources journal (volume 15, number 2) suggests a problem with this. There are discrepancies in how managers and learners perceive training effectiveness: same learning, different views. Other studies have also pointed to this so-called rating size problem. 
 
If the learner says training was top notch but their manager failed to notice any difference, how in earth do judge the training's worth? Take the learners word? Split the difference? Go with the manager? File evaluation in the 'too difficult' draw? The answer seems to me to lie in finding out not only what people thought but also investigating why. Training might not have registered on a manager's radar simply because she had not had a chance to see the trainee put their new skill into practice. Alternatively, managers may have an unrealistically pessimistic or optimistic view of training, something that is likely to filter through to employees. The problem might not be the content of training but how it’s delivered. Surveys suggest there is a mismatch between how employees like to learn (guided and on the job) and how they are actually trained. One group may look at content, the other delivery style. 
 
Evaluation needs to explore in detail the reasons for perceptions of training. It follows from this that auditing organisational learning culture and breaking results down by roles and departments should be an essential and ongoing HR activity. This is one way to check whether there are common understandings. Perhaps then we might get a better fit between skill requirements and training and fewer breaks on economic recovery.
 
If you would like full details of documents referred to above, please email me.
 
About the author
Richard Griffin is director of the Institute of Vocational Learning and Workforce Research. His book, Complete Training Evaluation will be published in August. Richard.Griffin@Bucks.ac.uk

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