7 November 2016 | By Professor Lord Battacharyya Community

Accelerating skills development

Businesses can be the driving force behind the development of a skilled workforce for the future

Imagine if every worker in your organisation was replaced by someone who knew nothing about your business, your customers, your clients or the tools of your trade. Even if all your new colleagues were fast learners, would you be able to do your job well? How satisfied do you think your clients and customers would be?

What about the country? If the army was entirely made up of officer cadets, and the local hospital staffed only by first-year medical students, how safe would you feel in a crisis?

Such extreme examples show how important a skilled workforce is, and how often we take skills for granted. People are the main asset of any business or organisation and, in a competitive world, making sure employees have up-to-date and relevant skills is extremely important. Especially in the UK where there is a skills shortage in some sectors.

Most of the time, that’s not unreasonable. After all, few businesses would replace people who were good at their job with inexperienced amateurs.

A moving target

What about when your industry is changing, though? When new technologies develop, new sectors emerge or new ways of reaching customers are created, we all become unskilled amateurs. Without being taught how to make the most of these opportunities, we’d be likely to make avoidable mistakes.

That’s why companies should invest in skills with the same consistency as they seek improved technology or lower costs. First, it’s essential to develop a good supply of skilled potential employees. Then, once they’re making a difference, their skill can’t be allowed to rust.

The accrued knowledge of a workforce is a business asset - so it's vital to take action so that it's not lost. A structured skills programme should help ensure that every employee can benefit from the skills learned through that hard-won experience, even after an unexpected departure.

You wouldn’t expect a teenager to know what skills are needed in your business if you don’t tell them, so companies can’t sit back and wait for talent to turn up at the gate. You have to help them find their way to you.

There are ways to smooth their path. At University Technical Colleges employers, teachers and universities work together to inspire schoolchildren with potential technical expertise. Then there are apprenticeships. I’m a passionate advocate of apprentices, having come to Britain as a graduate apprentice with Lucas Industries.

My years at Lucas showed me how to be an engineer, not merely understand engineering. It was a role with a clear status and a future of possibility.

Today’s apprentices need the same status, the same opportunities to succeed. But these days an apprenticeship can’t only be about certificates and careers. We also need to help workers be as comfortable with change at sixty as they were at sixteen.

Developing the skills of adaptability can mean sharing new ways of working or challenging staff to solve emerging problems. People never stop learning and adapting, unless they never hear new ideas. That’s why universities and businesses are natural partners in lifelong learning - universities have both the fresh perspectives needed for new ideas and the rigorous standards required for business relevance.

New tricks

This approach is behind the recently launched Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Learning Academy. This is a first of its kind partnership between engineers at WMG, a University of Warwick innovation to help reinvigorate UK manufacturing, and JLR’s leaders. Its aim is to offer every employee a career-long individual development programme. Warwick University’s high standards mean employees know their qualifications will be valuable, and JLR can be confident that each new skill will really help the bottom line.

Many companies invest in education and training, but for it to really be part of the fabric of a business, both the staff and the shareholders must feel confident their effort will be rewarded.

When we move to a new job, we know we are going to face new challenges, and hopefully learn as we do. We must do more to help people acquire skills at the start of their working lives, as well at every time their role changes.

The challenges won’t stop coming. When it comes to winning the skills race, you definitely need to give your workers a fast start, but you also need to make sure you keep your foot on the pedal - even when your rivals have put the brakes on.