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With a third of UK adults lacking a basic school-leaving qualification, the standards of vocational training in the meat industry desperately need improvement, but there are signs of a slow sea-change.

Chloe Smith reports

The facts are both shocking and shameful. More than one-third of adults do not hold the equivalent of a basic school-leaving qualification. Almost half of adults (17m) have difficulty with numbers and one-seventh (5m) are illiterate.

These were the facts that prompted an in-depth report into training by Lord Sandy Leitch, published in December 2006. Prosperity for All in the Global Economy: World Class Skills is the title of the Leitch report, which makes proposals designed to drag British industry back into the spotlight and make it a world leader in skills. And the meat industry sorely needs it. Paula Widdowson, commercial director of Improve, the sector skills council for food and drink manufacturing and processing, points out the bald facts: "Over a quarter of people in the meat sector, 28%, cannot read, write or do maths to the ability of an average 10-year-old."

Change is a must

Things must change, because, as Lord Leitch pointed out at the launch of the report: "The case for action is compelling and urgent. Without increased skills we would condemn ourselves to a lingering decline in competitiveness, diminishing economic growth and a bleaker future for all."

It is now nearly six months since the report was published, so are its effects being felt by those charged with the task of training the country's workers? And what problems does the meat industry, in particular, have to overcome to make these goals achievable? Bill Jermey, chairman of the Meat Training Council (MTC), says that what is holding the meat industry back is the number of employers who avoid giving workers a qualification, because they fear their staff will be poached by a rival. "The real issue lies with the number of companies that currently undertake training, but don't like to give their employees a certificate," he says. "But all the research says that if you train your people and give them qualifications, you are going to have a more loyal workforce.

"These days, we have a constant demand for continuous improvement and, by implementing training with your staff, you implement the mindset to drive forward continuous improvement. That has to be good for everybody," adds Jermey, who urges employers to take advantage of the Train2Gain scheme, which provides full funding for trainees.

Running behind

At the moment, Britain is behind its principal competitors. But Leitch believes we can turn things around by 2020 and has made recommendations for radical change. One of the most well-known is the proposal to introduce compulsory education or workplace training up to the age of 18. This could be A-levels or vocational training, either at a college or as part of an apprenticeship. Jane Dale, managing director of training provider Meat Ipswich, welcomes the drive to increase training, but is sceptical about the proposal to make education or training mandatory up to 18. The way to improve skills in the meat industry is to start earlier on, Dale says. "We need to improve basic skills in schools. If someone can't read and write by 14 they've got little chance."

Dale believes that reluctance to train staff will only be changed if the proposals become enforced and says she would welcome a levy. "The only way forward I can see is to do something similar to the French system. In France, every company has to pay 0.5% of their profits into a training fund, managed by the government. If they choose not to train their staff, they lose out," she says.

Although, at the moment, Leitch's recommendations have no teeth - if, in Leitch's words "insufficient progress" has been made by 2010 - he has recommended the introduction of a statutory right for employees to access workplace training.

Big shock

And Widdowson confirms that while she believes the culture is shifting towards seeing training as an investment, she thinks it likely Leitch's proposals will be accepted by government and says the meat industry has got a big shock coming its way if it does not work hard to implement the changes: "We have three years to change the culture in this country, otherwise a levy is going to be imposed across all businesses in the UK, to ensure they train their people," she says. But before this has to happen, Leitch wants to launch a new 'pledge' for employers to voluntarily train more employees at work. He has also recommended the setting-up of an adult careers service, which will assess workers' skills in the form of a 'skills health check', available to all.

The goals are: to change the shameful statistics and raise to 95% the number of working-age adults with basic skills in functional literacy and numeracy by 2020; ensure more than 90% of adults have GCSEs or vocational equivalents; boost the number of apprentices to 500,000 each year; and increase the number of graduates to 40% of the population.

Ambitious

It is an ambitious plan, but the report claims the benefits are huge: a more prosperous and productive society, with higher rates of employment and lower levels of poverty and inequality. If achieved, the report estimates a potential net benefit of at least £80bn over 30 years, equivalent to an annual boost of £2.5bn. Widdowson says that since Improve rewrote the qualifications framework, allowing workers to pick and choose modules of qualifications that suit their jobs, attitudes in the meat industry towards the value of qualifications are starting to change: "We are seeing a sea-change in the sector's attitude towards skills and training," she says. "We now have a bang up-to-date qualification framework and a bang up-to-date national occupational standard, which we can now use to deliver full qualifications on a modular basis." Widdowson acknowledges there are problems with targeting those who need training most, but says Improve is working on it: "Improve is working with Union learning reps, because it's very difficult for these people, once they're in the workplace, to put their hand up and say, 'Excuse me, manager, I can't read and write properly'; they're frightened that they will lose their jobs. What we've seen in the last two-and-a-half years is a significant shift in employers' attitudes, from a cost of training to an investment in training perspective."

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