More than one million employees not ‘fully proficient’ at their roles, government stats reveal

Experts warn businesses that cut L&D budgets are ‘shooting themselves in the foot’, as Department for Education survey shows staff training has fallen to lowest level in nine years

The proportion of workers considered not ‘fully proficient’ at their roles by their employer rose to 4.5 per cent in 2019 – equivalent to 1.25 million employees – the Department for Education (DfE) has revealed.

This marked the first increase in the number of employees unable to do their jobs properly since 2011, and compared to 1.15 million in 2017.

The department’s Employer Skills Survey 2019 also revealed that workplace training hit its lowest level in a decade last year. It found that in the year to December 2019, fewer than two-thirds (61 per cent) of employers had offered training to staff, down from 66 per cent in 2017.

Similarly, the proportion of staff actually undergoing training over the same period decreased to 60 per cent, down from 62 per cent in 2019. This was the lowest proportion reported since the DfE began producing these reports in 2011.

The survey of more than 81,000 employers across England, Northern Ireland and Wales was conducted before the coronavirus outbreak started impacting the economy.

As such, the downturn in training was particularly concerning given the coronavirus outbreak had likely worsened the situation further, said Lizzie Crowley, senior skills adviser at the CIPD. “Some of the early indicators that we have got from our Labour Market Outlook data is that training budgets have been impacted by Covid-19 and the subsequent downturn, and they are likely to be so over the coming year, or however long the recession lasts for,” she said.

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Crowley added that a CIPD employer poll in June this year had found more than one in five (22 per cent) firms planned to cut their training budgets over the coming months, with just one in seven (16 per cent) intending to increase it. But not investing in training was a false economy and employers who went down this route were “shooting themselves in the foot”, she warned.

Cutting training budgets at a time when businesses should instead be preparing for a “new normal” was short-term thinking that “reflected weak management and leadership”, agreed Steve Ludlow, head of executive education at Henley Business School. “What needs to happen is for talent development to be seen as a vital tool for organisational transformation, not a discretionary cost.”

Earlier this year, research by the Open University found employers were spending billions each year plugging skills gaps in their workforce, with the cost doing so tripling from £2.2bn in 2017 to £6.6bn in 2019.

The decrease in training by employers did not bode well for prime minister Boris Johnson’s recent pledge of a lifetime skills guarantee, part of the government’s plan to reskill workers who had lost jobs during the outbreak, experts said.

Jane Hickie, managing director of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), warned the skills guarantee would need “major investment” and reform of the adult education system to work.

“AELP’s view is that the government’s pledges on retraining will be best met if it brings adult education budgets together and makes them accessible via individual skills accounts where the learner can exercise choice over the type of learning needed,” she said.

Ludlow added: “The issue is not to do with meeting political commitments, it is about ensuring the long-term health of British industry. The need for continuous development of people is essential to respond to changing technology, customer demand and organisational processes. The rate of change has increased in recent years – Covid has simply accelerated matters.”

The DfE’s report also showed the number of training days taken by staff fell to 99 million in 2019, down from 105 million in 2017. “This equated to six training days per annum per person trained and 3.6 days per employee, the lowest levels over the 2011-2019 period,” it stated.

The report said 2019 marked “a potentially significant turning point, with decreases across several key measures including the proportion of employers training, the total training days provided, and employer investment in training”.

“Employers were being less proactive and fewer employers with skills gaps in their workforce had taken any steps to address the lack of proficiency compared with 2017,” it said.

The report also warned: “The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has clearly provided a significant shock to the economy and is likely to have lasting and significant effects on employers, and their recruitment and skills needs.”