Education and Training the Workforce: A Digest

The scope of this subject is large; its subject matter a source of potential ambiguity, however this is no good reason not to try and explore one of the multiple functions of education… The distinction between education and training in the United Kingdom is periodically, and of late more frequently, pronounced obsolete, yet it persists with an energy that suggests strong ideological and political value.  It seems to have relevance both for people of different persuasion about what education should be and for those with an interest in the way education and training resources are allocated.


As to the ‘workforce’ – there are certainly ambiguities.  We might focus on the relative participation rates of women and men, economy-wide and by sectors, and on the decline of primary and manufacturing sectors in favour of the service sectors and information technology.  But today the unemployed are an unavoidable factor in almost any calculation to do with education and training as an investment.


Does ‘workforce training’ include the training and retraining of the several million unemployed adults officially thus registered ?  Does it include the unknown considerable number with the capacity but no longer the expectation of taking paid employment ?  Confusion and political controversy surround official unemployment, job and workforce figures.


For instance, the inclusion or exclusion of the self-employed, the obscured shifts between full time and fractional employment, the shadowy questions about the hidden or ‘black’ economy necessitate complex answers to apparently simple questions.


Approaching contemporary issues historically in Britain is doubly hazardous.  Not only do institutions (and attitudes and values associated with them) powerfully influence what can be done or contemplated today, but Britain is also a deeply conservative society.  Lack of respect for traditional ways of doing things is prone to engender stiff opposition to proposals for change.


Nevertheless, it is difficult to escape the view that the arrangements and practices for workforce education and training appear seriously inadequate to meet the needs.  Moreover, there persist major differences as to the fact and nature of such a need: for instance, we do not know clearly the reach of new information and other advanced technologies and their implications for the size and nature of the workforce.  Conflict over these matters (crudely between ‘optimists’, ‘pessimists’, and agnostics) must affect decisions about provision of workforce education and training.


What is the System ?

Does it make sense to talk about a system of workforce education and training ?  The term VET (vocational education and training) in Great Britain is gaining acceptance but the provision, and the policy behind it, is by no means coherently agreed and presented.


Whose Responsibility ?

There is fundamental disagreement, stemming from conflicting political and social ideologies, over who should assume responsibility and pay for VET, as between the government, representing the interests of society at large, the employers, and the individuals who receive VET.  Those favouring a planned economy lean to the former; free market advocates prefer a mix of the second and third.


Who provides and controls ?

Three parties were mentioned above: government, employers, and employees.  Another stake holder, sometimes having control and perhaps also making provision of VET, is the trade or professional association.  Associations may regulate entry and even the continuing right to practise, by means of VET, both initial and continuing.



What is the Need ?

VET is approaching ‘motherhood’ status.  Few publicly suggest that it is unnecessary although there is little direct evidence to prove that it enhances productivity and profitability.  Despite high unemployment figures one reads in the same areas of skills shortages and of concern that economic recovery will be stifled by skills shortages and bottlenecks.  There is controversial talk about ‘training for stock’ of the unemployed: trying, that is, to keep the unemployed skilled and motivated to be ready for employment should jobs become available.  Equally controversial is the issue of which occupational groups most need VET investment and in what proportion (an issue which excited controversy in Canada in recent times).

An allied broader dispute concerns equity and economic recovery; should enhanced welfare benefits wait upon economic recovery providing a capacity to pay ?  Should VET be concentrated on those with least skills and greatest economic needs, or used to raise further the competence of the highly skilled, and already advantaged, whose managerial and technical skills in information and other high technology and ‘sunrise’ industries may be the key to national prosperity ?

Attitudes and rigidities.  Traditional attitudes and rigidities in the UK can make it exceedingly hard to secure appropriate educational provision for the workforce – even assuming that there is agreement as to what is needed.

Educational institutions still tend to consider the young to be proper clientèle for schools, colleges, and universities and, more insidiously, to consider vocationally-oriented work demeaning, even anti-educational.


On the other hand, although many further and higher education institutions have changed their clientèle’s and modes of provision dramatically in recent years, traditional attitudes and stereotypes still prevail, so that they are charged with failing to adapt even as they adapt.


Employers in Britain, noting the small proportion of the population taking higher education, and small proportion of these going into industry, have tended not to look to further and higher education for practical training and assistance.  Industry thus attracts charges of anti-intellectualism and complacency for the low level of interest and investment shown in upgrading the workforce.  Many employers seem to have difficulty in coming to terms with Britain’s current economic situation and the success of its competitors; and in seeing any link between this and the generally low level of investment in human resources via training and retraining.


Is there life after school ?

Or rather, is there work after school and how does school relate to and prepare for it ?  Recurrent education, a philosophy and strategy propounded particularly by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), looks to greater integration of educational, social and economic policy, with education and training available on a recurrent basis throughout life.  Implications of recurrent education for schooling include ‘education of the workforce’, at least to the extent of fostering favourable attitudes, providing work experience, and securing a base of knowledge, skills, and attitudes conducive to continuing learning an periodic study throughout working life.

VET strategies and methodologies.  At the heart of the subject is the individual in or seeking to enter or re-enter employment, who needs to learn something.  Whereas adult learning has generated little new research of practical application in recent years, there is wider awareness of the need for learners to be involved in and committed to what they are studying, to find it of practical relevance in the case of VET.


This goes hand in hand with a tendency to make educational delivery more flexible, diverse, and ‘learner-centred’.  Self-directed and self-paced learning as approaches to the continuing education of adults have produced various forms of correspondence, computer-based and assisted learning, and other variations of pace and place of study which go under the umbrella of ‘open learning’.  The utility of ‘open learning’ for different categories of VET and different learner groups in an important and complicated matter.


Credentialling and Mandation

Recognizing and certifying VET attainment is closely associated with provision and control.  Where one party provides the VET and another assesses and validates it, sensitive partnerships are involved.  Making continuing education and training obligatory, or mandatory, is another sensitive matter.
Employers tend to prefer VET to be conducted in-house and without the certification which may enhance employee mobility and increase turnover problems and the problem of investing in employees to a competitor’s advantage.  Employees, on the other hand, tend to seek qualifications from their further study and so to look to related matters such as recognition of workplace experience by educational institutions and credit accumulation.


The ‘British Way’ – and the influence of other models.  Britain is reputedly pragmatic and practical, more concerned with practical results than grand theory.  Such a stereotype may appear fanciful but it can influence and even control attitudes and behaviours.  The term ‘complacency’ has appeared in various reports about Britain’s industrial performance, and specifically about employers’ often indifferent attitudes to VET, or human resource investment.


A tradition for ‘making do’ and appearing to get away with it – although Britain’s economic supremacy may have derived from quite other factors than excellence of management or the workforce – may be a uniquely British obstacle to workforce VET.  The present British government, free market and individualistic, seeks to build on the characteristic of pragmatism as a strength but also risks indulging laissez-faire individualism where highly directive policies for VET investment may be required.


Some who are searching for better forms of workforce education and training, for example for managers in industry, seek to exploit this British tradition and way of doing things so that innovation, perhaps industry-led and government supported, will appear attractive to thos of traditional, and pragmatic, bent.


One way of trying to goad or shame people into improving their performance is to suggest how much better it is done elsewhere.  The ‘global village’ nature of the world today makes it easier to draw comparisons with what is done abroad – particularly in the leading industrialized OECD nations, the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, and the USA.


Several recent reports have done just this, and the OECD provides a constant sources of comparative data and reports on economic performance and on effort in such fields as VET.  It is not clear that international comparing, challenging, and attempted shaming, has significant effect.  So long as there is in fact a sense of complacency, and superiority, what ‘the foreigner’ does is unlikely to provide a successful lever.


One can distinguish between education which prepares people for the workforce by way of general understanding of, for example, a technical field, and the specific updating in skills as new equipment is installed and other innovations occur.  In theory, the first falls within education and is a responsibility of society and the education system, while the latter rests with the employer and can often best be done on site and with the actual equipment of the employing organisation.


There is a tendency for employers to feel skeptical about the quality and especially the relevance of what educational institutions have to offer.  Yet further and higher education is becoming more open and adaptive as a system to the training needs of employers; ‘market-let’ is the common expression.  Contraction of familiar sources of government funding leads institutions to create ‘cost centres’ with income targets.  This in turn leads them to seek closer partnerships with employers and new forms of partnerships.


The MSC has been a powerful influence in VET.  It has proved directive and, for Britain, very fast moving.  This has been a source of severe criticism by those in some sense competitors, recipients, or ‘victims’, and of albeit grudging admiration.  A recent official report also criticized it for high levels of spending without any real idea of the skills required by industry (a charge which could be levelled against almost any area of education and training, where ‘acts of faith’ are so commonly required).


It remains impossible to measure the education and training needs of the workforce, though international comparisons suggest that these far exceed current provision.  Creation and articulation of needs logically precede needs-meeting and there are signs of wider acceptance that there is a gross deficiency and that this deficiency is one of the reasons for Britain’s limited economic performance.


In Great Britain this is a time of experimentation, rapid change, much trial and error; a time when rhetoric often runs ahead of actual provision.  Rhetoric is important, however: at the heart of the problem of inadequate training and retraining lie the cultural traditions and attitudes referred to at the beginning of this chapter; without a change of hearts and minds, VET will fall short of what demographic as well as economic and technological changes suggest is necessary.


Recurrent education means reducing initial full time and pre-experience education (this could apply equally to high prestige university courses such as law and medicine) and shifting to a lifelong pattern of recurrent vocational and other education and training, as need and motivation dictate.

This is a digest of Chris Duke’s work. Professor and former Director of Community and Regional Partnership at RMIT University in Australia also Honorary Professor of Lifelong Learning at the University of Leicester.

(Chris Duke, Education and Training the Workforce,  Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 333 to 346)