LRD Booklets March 2016

The skills system at work - a guide for trade unionists



[pages 3-6]

The UK skills system is complex with a vast array of participants, providers and funders. This complexity, combined with current spending restraints and concerns from employers and unions about the availability and quality of skills training, makes navigating and accessing what is available increasingly difficult.

In a recent report on the UK skills system, skills development organisation City and Guilds describes the development of skills policy as “three decades of going around in circles”. The report highlights the complexity of the system and reveals some alarming facts to illustrate the continued frustration of coherent policy making:

• there have been 61 secretaries of state responsible for skills and employment policy in the last three decades (compared with 18 for schools policy and 16 for higher education);

• between them they produced 13 major Acts of Parliament;

• the policy area has flipped between departments or been shared with multiple departments no fewer than 10 times since the 1980s; and

• “consistent churn has created a collective amnesia and growing lack of organisational memory at political and official levels”.

The report concludes: “Sustained disruption in the system, from machinery of government change and ministerial reshuffles, to low-level policy ‘tinkering’ and wholesale system-wide change, has consistently and often negatively impacted implementation in key areas.”

Unsurpringly, the result of this instability is a mosaic of often incoherent provision and funding. 

Sense & instability: Three decades of skills and employment policy, is available to download from the City and Guilds website:

To illustrate this ongoing problem, at the end of January 2016, while this booklet was being produced, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) select committee released a highly critical report of the government’s flagship Productivity plan, a 15-point manifesto aimed at “fixing the foundations” of the British economy. 

The plan makes clear that improving workforce skills must be a key priority, and particularly mentions apprenticeships, English and maths, and employability skills. However, the select committee said the plan lacked clear and measurable objectives, and described the initiatives it promotes, including plans to boost apprenticeship numbers, as a “vague collection of existing policies”.

The government’s target of creating three million apprenticeships by 2020 was described by the select committee as “ambitious” and “something of a blunt and arbitrary tool”, which may run contrary to what businesses actually need. The report raised concerns about how the target would be met, and said that businesses and industry had not been consulted properly on the policy. In particular, too little thought had been given to what level and types of apprenticeships would be needed to fill skills gaps. 

There was particular criticism of the government’s “apprenticeship levy” plans for large businesses (see Chapter 3) which would be used to fund the three million apprenticeship target.

The select committee called for clarity on how the levy would work for employers whose business would not benefit by taking on apprentices. In addition, it said the levy should be implemented in such a way to allow different sectors to decide what type of training and qualifications would best suit their specific needs.

This report was followed by an announcement in mid-February 2016 that the BIS parliamentary sub-committee on education, skills and the economy had launched an inquiry into a variety of apprenticeship-related issues, including quality, progression on to higher levels and the government’s apprenticeship levy plans. Committee members will scrutinise how the government's plan to achieve three million new apprenticeships by 2020 will be delivered, focussing on how the levy on all large businesses will be implemented.

There is a strong case for radical reform and simplification of the skills system but, as can be seen from the above developments, it continues to be characterised by flux and uncertainty, meaning that unions, employers, training providers and others have to operate within a system characterised by continually changing priorities. 

Against this background of policy disarray, the union role in workplace learning and skills has never been more crucial. Unions already provide access to a range of skills initiatives and courses ranging from basic skills and apprenticeships to higher education qualifications which can be developed and expanded. 

This new LRD guide examines and explains the UK skills system as it is currently operating and looks in particular at the latest tranche of policy initiatives, including the apprenticeship levy. It also examines the work and activities of trade unions within the skills system, particularly at workplace level, their concerns about skills development and how the union role in workplace skills provision can develop and expand against a background of financial constraint and insecurity.

The scale of the problem

Skills shortages

The latest annual Employer Skills Survey 2015 from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), published in January 2016, shows that so-called “skills shortage vacancies” now make up nearly a quarter of all job openings, increasing from 91,000 in 2011 to 209,000 in 2015. 

Although most industrial sectors are suffering from skills shortages, the situation is particularly acute for some. The survey finds that over a third of vacancies in electricity, gas and water and construction are now due to skills shortages, with transport and manufacturing not far behind. Only in public administration are skills shortages below 10%.

Other key findings include:

• the financial services sector has seen the sharpest rise in skills shortages, rising from 10% in 2013 to 21% in 2015;

• time management is a significant issue, with nearly 60% of establishments who reported a skills gap saying that their staff lacked the ability to manage their own time and prioritise tasks; and

• across the UK, two million workers are under-utilised — that is, they have skills and experience which are not being used in their current job.

In total nearly 210,000 vacancies were identified as “skills shortage vacancies” — a lack of skilled or qualified people to take on a job — up from 146,000 in 2013.

At the same time, the survey of more than 90,000 employers shows little change in employer training trends. The most shocking statistics are that a third of employers still admit to training none of their staff. And over a third (37%) of employees say that they do not receive any training.

Liz Rees, director of the TUC’s unionlearn learning and skills organisation, said: 

“These latest findings from this highly reputable skills survey show exactly why new policy measures, such as the apprenticeship levy [see Chapter 3]and procurement regulations, are urgently required to make sure that more employers invest in the skills of their existing staff and make a commitment to recruiting high quality apprenticeships. 

“Unions can do much to assist employers and employees to increase their investment in training through the activities of union learning reps and joint strategies with employers to improve learning and skills. 

“The latest research evidence shows that the proportion of union members accessing regular training is 39% compared to 23% of non-unionised employees and that training and productivity levels are boosted in organisations where unions are active in supporting learning and skills."

The Employer Skills Survey 2015 is available to download from the government website at:

Basic skills

A report from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), The impact of poor basic literacy and numeracy on English employers published in February 2016 showed the significance for employers of addressing these issues in the workplace.

It found one in eight (12%) workplaces in England reporting a literacy and/or numeracy gap where at least one member of staff is unable to perform certain literacy or numeracy tasks to the level required in their day-to-day job. More workplaces report a literacy gap rather than a numeracy gap (8.6% and 6.6% respectively). 

Nationally, 15% of workplaces report that they have provided basic skills training over the past year. The majority of workplaces (68%) with a reported basic skills gap — the gap between what employers need and what job seekers are offering — do not provide basic skills training. Furthermore, the research did not identify formal basic skills training as a priority for employers or for employees.

The BIS report showed how the productivity and efficiency of a firm can be negatively affected in several ways by gaps in basic skills. Firstly, it found that employees with basic skills gaps are more susceptible to making errors, which results in increased waste and lost time. Secondly, the report said efficiency can also be impeded because skills deficits in the workforce can restrict the introduction of new, more efficient processes, or reduce product/output quality.

A recurring theme from the case studies in the BIS report was that some employers have a low awareness of literacy and numeracy gaps in their workplace. It said: “In order for employers to appreciate the impact of poor basic skills on their workplace performance and, by implication, make them more willing to understand and support their employees in meeting the literacy and numeracy demands of the workplace, employers need support in understanding the literacy and numeracy components of workplace tasks.” This is an area where trade unions, particularly through union learning reps, can expand their workplace activities.

The impact of poor basic literacy and numeracy on English employers is available from the government website at: