Learning and development are not solely matters of concern for individuals and their employers. An educated and skilled workforce is essential for the effective functioning of the economy, for the competitiveness and wealth of the nation, and for the overall wellbeing of society. Indeed, Tyson and Fell (1995) suggest that ‘the future will see a world of work based more on skills than organisations’.
To ensure that a nation achieves the level of skills it needs, its government therefore puts in place the vocational education and training (VET) policies and systems that will facilitate their development. Such national strategies therefore form an important part of the context of individual learning and organisational human resource development. As new technology progresses, replacing jobs and changing skill requirements, there is an increasing need for a skilled and highly trained workforce able to meet these changing situations.
Traditional skills, for example in the engineering and construction industries, are rapidly changing, and the type of economy in which a young person can receive an apprenticeship that would stand them in good stead for a lifetime career is dwindling. This trend is international, and poses problems for the USA, Japan, Germany, France, Sweden and other industrialised nations. However, comparisons with competitor nations indicate that Britain is suffering from a severe skills shortage.
Its ‘first ever national audit of job skills’, which the government published in 1996 to accompany its third ‘competitiveness’ White Paper, compares Britain with France, Germany, Singapore and the USA:
Britain’s greatest deficiency is in basic and level 2 skills (low-level NVQ skills including numeracy and literacy), though ‘Britain is ahead of its competitors both on quality and the quantity of its population’ possessing degrees and vocational qualifications of a comparable level. Many see the solution to be the investment of more capital in education and training, and the creation of an ever more skilled and knowledgeable workforce, partly because the industrialised countries can never compete with developing world economies in terms of cheap labour.
The developments in VET in Britain, as elsewhere, have to be seen within this context. However, the efficacy of VET to achieve such national needs is not fully demonstrated. For example, the relative economic decline in Britain has led to much debate as to the adequacy of training in helping to arrest this trend. (This is a controversial issue that will be discussed in a later section.)
The purpose of this section is to outline some of the VET policies and systems currently in place in Britain, and to indicate possible future developments. However, it first recognises the key stakeholders in VET, and then sets British provision in the context of that of some of its major competitors.
Chapter identified several stakeholders in the individual’s learning and development, and it examined the needs and responses of the individual and the employer in particular. There are several stakeholders in VET too, and their values and actions constitute the framework within which individual learning and development and organizational HRD have to take place. The part the government plays in this field will be examined in some detail later in this chapter.
Employers are also significant stakeholders in VET. This is apparent in the international comparisons in the following section. During the 1990s, the British employers’ body, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), played an influential role. For example, recognising the need for a ‘skills revolution’ (Confederation of British Industry, 1989), it proposed training targets (later adopted by the government) for the minimum standards needed to increase Britain’s competitiveness.
The trade unions are further stakeholders in VET. At present the role of British unions in this regard is somewhat limited compared with that of their counterparts in France and Germany:
Since 1997 and the election of a Labour government, unions have been welcomed into a partnership with employers and the government, and have collectively been a large contributor to the National Skills Task Force (NSTF), which has investigated national skills shortages and has produced several reports and recommendations.
Regional TUC organizations are also involved in implementing and operating Learning and Skills Councils, which replaced Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) in April 2001.Unions such as the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) are set to become the number one providers of workplace training within five years, claims Dave Ward, national education officer at the CWU college.
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