Directing training funds through employers: what does it mean for adult learners?

Blog posts

17 Jun 2015

Annette CoxAnnette Cox and Jonathan Buzzeo

National Adult Learners Week has got us thinking about the different types of learning in which IES staff participate. As well as the constant variety of on-the-job learning, and tailored professional development, a quick straw poll revealed lots of learning for leisure and pleasure. We uncovered several would-be linguists, a handful of yogis, the beginnings of a small orchestra of musicians and two kick-boxers (whom we’re approaching much more cautiously from now on). This is consistent with research evidence that highly skilled and educated workers are more likely than others to engage in learning and training throughout their working lives.

But for those workers who are less likely to be self-starting learners in their leisure time, employers remain crucial influences on promoting and encouraging skills development. Expectations that firms will take on greater responsibilities for funding training through the employer ‘ownership’ of skills agenda were introduced by the previous government. This emphasis is being sustained by the new government against a backdrop of reductions in the Adult Skills budget, and, potentially, future spending cuts. This means that adult learners may be increasingly dependent on whatever opportunities are offered by their employers, unless they are able and willing to invest their own money or take on loans. Two key pilot programmes, which IES is evaluating together with Ipsos Mori, are intended to stimulate employer investment in skills. These are the Employer Ownership of Skills Pilots (EOSP), and the Employer Investment Funds (EIF) and Growth and Innovation Funds (GIF).

Designed on principles of co-investment, these are pots of money which eligible employers (and Sector Skills Councils in the case of EIF and EOSP) can bid for competitively to solve skills challenges. So, what have been the successes and challenges of these programmes to date and what are their prospects for sustainability?

EIF and GIF have assembled a broad portfolio of projects, with substantial proportions of activity focused on providing Information, Advice and Guidance to individuals, brokerage of employment and apprenticeships. Our initial qualitative fieldwork showed that projects introducing the idea of recruiting young people through apprenticeships were particularly popular with SMEs, including those with no previous history of engagement with government training schemes.  Apprenticeships were being offered in regions and sectors with lower than average provision, and were sometimes stimulating small employers to experiment with learning and implement new management practices for the benefit of existing workers. These projects were using ideas and solutions which were close to market and where there was a strong, albeit sometimes latent, demand from employers for higher-skilled, technical staff in science and manufacturing sectors.

Projects established as part of the Employer Ownership of Skills Pilots similarly focus on solving skills issues in key growth sectors, such as STEM and construction. The latest round of EOSP funding also established ‘industrial partnerships’ designed to bring employers and stakeholders, such as SSCs and trade and professional bodies, together within sectors, to define current and future common recruitment and workforce development needs.

EOSP-funded projects are promoting careers to young people and under-represented groups to grow the talent pipeline through school engagement, mentoring programmes and pre-employment provision such as traineeships. They are also addressing current gaps in training provision that hamper expansion of workforce skills, via designing new qualifications and training programmes, which include Apprenticeships. The industrial partnership model is intended to be sustained by pooling the resources and investment of key employers and stakeholders through formal industry bodies with a long-term strategic focus. Both EIF/GIF and ESOP highlight the potential role of intermediary organisations such as SSCs, local consortia of employers, and Local Enterprise Partnerships, as some employers have sought a role of influence rather than project managing funding arrangements.

But not all potential adult learners stand to benefit equally from employer-government partnerships to co-invest in skills. Those working in sectors with lower levels of skills demand and little history of employer collaboration may find their employers are less ambitious about developing the talents of their staff. EIF/GIF projects seeking to develop new standards and qualifications, often aimed at existing staff, have sometimes found it more difficult to gain traction with employers. People seeking progression from entry and intermediate level roles will be reliant on the ambition of their employers to develop internal career ladders. And those staff in small employers in niche industries may find their employers are less likely to seek co-investment funding unless they have the support of a powerful supply chain. Projects aimed at putting infrastructure in place rather than funding training directly will take time to embed and shortfalls in funding for adult learning due to austerity measures may lead to a temporary funding gap.

So, for adults in the workplace, channelling funds for learning through employers may provide opportunities and inspiration for some, but has not yet succeeded in fully levelling the playing field to achieve equal chances for all.