Creating an effective employer-led sector approach to skills: The role for unions?
The recent announcement by the government of a pilot project to “give employers power over skills training” raises new challenges for the union movement.
In a presentation I will be giving at the TUC unionlearn “Skills Investment” seminar on 1st December I will draw on my research in this field to show what such a system that gives power to employers might look like here in the UK. I will also highlight some of the key implications for the union movement.
In particular I will be referring to a detailed study that I and colleagues undertook of the approaches to skills investment in nine countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA, France Germany, Netherlands, South Africa and Singapore. In our study the most effective skills systems were those that had a well supported sectoral approach because this enabled the system to respond rapidly to industry differences in the demand for skills. They were systems in which the employers led in defining the skill requirements and the competencies required so that vocational qualifications reflected the needs of the economy. In this sense they gave employers considerable “power” over the system.
However, there is a big “but” here because qualifications also have another function, namely to provide a measure of individual learning and the acquisition of transferable skills which have a value in the labour market. It is here that unions in these countries play a significant part in the operation of effective employer-led skills systems. In some countries, such as Germany, this was through their involvement in the operation of the apprenticeship system. In others, such as the Netherlands with a more highly developed sectoral system, it was through the operation of the sector skills council and in the co-determination of qualifications.
Union involvement in these skills systems counteracts the tendency of some employers to focus on their short term needs and ensures that training takes full account of the longer term needs of employees. As a result the qualifications and the training system is employer driven but is also seen as delivering high quality training and training that has legitimacy in the eyes of the labour force. It is here that UK unions could have a crucial role to play.