Why you must give qualifications the third degree: print training interrogated

Jenny Roper
Monday, January 7, 2013

The last UK university print course closed in 2012. Many argue that on-the-job training is now the only answer, but others say this is costly and takes too much time. So, could there be another way?

POLL: Answer our poll, in relation to this feature, to let us know how you think print can fill its training vacuum.


Last year, it seemed as though print doors were being flung open from all directions – with nanography emerging, 3D print coming of age and B2 digital printing finally becoming practical. And yet, amid this rush of new opportunity, one significant door still seemed to be stubbornly stuck shut: officially accredited on-the-job training.

Indeed, while the importance of official qualifications increases with an ever tougher jobs market, and while the industry widely acknowledges a skills shortage issue, it seems that access to on-the-job training – such as apprenticeships and NVQs – remains problematic. In the past, it has been the printers that have been labelled the culprits for a lack of investment in staff, but there is growing evidence that the suitability of the official qualifications themselves may be the issue.

The situation has been thrust into the limelight by the fact the London College of Communication (LCC) last year announced that its print course, the last university print course in the country, was going to close. Thus ended a once-popular channel of training. Yet its demise came as no surprise to the industry, which has long questioned the suitability of an academic qualification for a very practical industry.

"These establishments have shut because the costs of running the practical side of print training at colleges just don’t add up anymore," explains John Bree, education director at training provider Learn 2 Print, and work-based learning coordinator at Leicester College in a past life. "But then I think you’re better off doing the training on the job nowadays anyway. Technology is moving on so quickly that colleges just can’t keep up."

On-the-job training, then, is now very much the only – and many say was always the best – route forwards in closing the skills gap threatening to engulf the industry as older employees retire. And yet access to those courses has long been criticised as being inadequate, with not enough printers giving staff official training opportunities. One of the key reasons for this, say many in the industry, is that companies do not realise the benefits on-the-job training brings to the business, as well as the employee.

Darren Stallan, coordinator for print at Leeds City College (an institution which now only certifies and provides the theory training for print apprenticeships and NVQs) says that in training your staff, you are ensuring their competency for the job. Meanwhile, Richard Moore, print and paper industry lead at standards and qualifications developer Proskills, says training can also ensure already competent staff are better and more knowledgeable. "Putting people through the NVQ drives a culture of continuous improvement," he says.

Continuous improvement
The argument goes that continuous improvement is important, as it takes an employee beyond their core duties and makes them more flexible. As a result, they are more useful to a company. This was certainly the experience of Richard Harnasz, PrintWeek’s Trainee of the Year in 2009 and now HP graduate scheme employee, who argues the value of training is as much for the company as the individual.

"An apprentice is a lot more strain than taking on a normal employee, in terms of paperwork, documentation and duty of care," he says. "But an apprenticeship or NVQ teaches a broad skillset and knowledge-base, so things like financial management and health and safety, and all of the different print processes, which can be a real asset."

Mercury Search & Selection managing director Dani Novick agrees: "Of course, this sort of training is a cost for employers and all costs have to be justified, but the benefits should be in better problem solving, reduced waste, multi-skilled staff able to provide cover, and better motivation. It won’t work for everyone, but in our experience, the employers who are investing in training are doing well out of it."

The latter is given some weight through some telling government statistics. The government says that more than 80% of those employers who employ apprentices agree that their workplace was more productive as a result; 81% of consumers favour using a company which takes on apprentices; 92% of employers who employ apprentices believe that they have a more motivated and satisfied workforce; and 83% of employers who employ apprentices rely on their apprenticeships programme to provide the skilled workers that they need for the future.

The suggestion, then, is that regardless of the wider industry benefits, companies would be crazy not to offer as much on-the-job training as they can for their own good. Yet nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

For starters, on-the-job training is now more in demand than it ever has been. The absence of university and college courses has left more people than ever seeking on-the-job training options. In addition, the unsettled economy and frequency of redundancies has added a whole new breed of print trainees to the training market.

"There are a lot of people coming to us now saying: ‘I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, but I’ve not got a formal qualification’. When we ask why they are worried now when they know how to do the job, you get the same answer every time – because redundancies are coming up and they believe they will lose out when going for new jobs, because they do not have the bit of paper saying officially that they can do the work," says Bree.

Harrison Scott joint managing director George Thompson says these printers’ concerns are justified. "The younger generation coming through does tend to have a qualification of some description and so if you are looking for jobs, you are competing against these people and you need to compete on a level playing field," he explains. "Of course, experience still counts, but employers are looking for qualifications; they want to see that you have retrained and that you have proof that you can do something."

Training demand
This demand for training is more than print companies could ever meet alone, as even taking on a single apprentice or putting someone forward for an NVQ can be a strain beyond the means of many.

The issue is that print firms are running leaner than ever. Taking on an apprentice who will need to attend external courses during work time, or providing other on-the-job training with external verification, can put companies under real pressure. Financially, training can also be a burden many cannot carry, with funding for apprenticeships in particular being cut back from the government.

If you are aged between 16 and 18 years old, then the government foots 100% of the bill for apprenticeships. But the older you get, the less funding the government provides. If you are 19-24 years old, the government provides only up to 50% of the costs. If you are 25 years old or over you may only get a contribution depending on the sector and area in which you operate. According to the BPIF, the situation currently with the latter is that from next August there will be no government funding available for learners over the age of 24 for their first Level 3 qualification, with Level 2 still under debate (you can get a university-style loan to train, however. See our box-out on FE loans below).

Many companies argue that they simply do not have the financial resources to step in and pay for this training, nor the capacity to let trainees go off to college on company time.

"I think the problem a small company like ourselves would have with apprentices would be them disappearing out into colleges for some days when you’re phenomenally busy," says Gary Benner, owner at SM Finishing. "We’re a very small company. We don’t carry extra staff – nobody does nowadays, because you have to be incredibly lean to survive."

Financial sacrifice
Benner adds that to make the sacrifice financially to put someone through training, it would have to be a very compelling argument. He says that for the more senior printers looking to authenticate experience, the reasoning would normally not be compelling enough.

"I would have thought those older people tempted to do NVQs would have already learned and still be learning a hell of a lot on the job, because most companies are continuing to invest in the latest technologies," he says. "Would they learn any more on an NVQ? I don’t think so."

There is also the fact that – contrary to the views expressed earlier – for some, the value in the current apprenticeships does not necessarily outweigh practical experience or any number of other factors when it comes to employment. Financing a formal qualification therefore becomes more difficult to justify.

"You can’t just look at qualifications," says Dale Burgess, sales and marketing manager at book printer Berforts. "You have to look at the person as a whole: what experience they’ve got and how they’re going to benefit the firm in the long run."

The difficulties print is having in making the official on-the-job training schemes work are echoed in other industries, as shown in the government review of the UK apprenticeship system, which was published last August. In that document, report author Jason Holt delivered a damning verdict on the system, calling it both "misunderstood and inaccessible". In response to that report, even those printers that have embraced apprenticeships and other training programmes voiced frustration at the current system. Eclipse Colour has five apprentices across its departments, while Stephens & George (S&G) has 19 at various stages of four-year courses. David Weiss, head of manufacturing at Eclipse Colour, said at the time that more financial incentives may be needed to facilitate training, while S&G managing director Andrew Jones said there was too much red tape around on-the-job training.

Not compatible?
So rather than an unwillingness from printers to provide official on-the-job training schemes – and thereby creating the much talked-of skills gap in the industry – it may well be that the systems currently available are simply not compatible with the nature of the modern print business. University and dedicated college courses have already perished and the reluctance of some in the print industry to fully embrace print apprenticeships or other on-the-job schemes suggests something may be wrong with these programmes as well.

The efforts of the BPIF to make on-the-job training more useful for companies as well as individuals suggests this may be the case. BPIF chief executive Kathy Woodward explains that the organisation is working hard to ensure that apprenticeships and mature student NVQs are "dynamic" enough that even a print veteran doing an NVQ now would, in fact, be learning a whole new – and very valuable – set of skills.

Also supporting the idea is the fact that alternatives to the apprenticeships and other schemes are emerging. Printers are embracing these schemes eagerly, with manufacturer-led training one area proving popular.

Heidelberg showroom manager Paul Chamberlain explains that his company has upped the ante on providing extra, paid-for training over recent years. These and other equipment supplier-run courses can be good, lower-cost alternatives to an NVQ, he explains.

"Though our courses might just consist of a couple of days training and so be relatively inexpensive, a company will still get more skilled employees and so higher productivity from the training," he says. He notes that printers may well be able – at least until August 2013 – to get funding from their local authority for this in the same way they would for an NVQ.

Formal recognition
And these types of courses are becoming increasingly attractive as a result of moves from the BPIF and Proskills to grant them formal recognition so they carry the same kind of official weight as an NVQ.

"Some of the training delivered by equipment manufacturers is first rate and fantastic," says Proskills’ Moore. "Some of the training is so good, but it’s lost in the mists of time and we don’t know if the providers are following correct standards and procedures. So we’ve been working on a scheme called the Accreditation of Company Training, so manufacturers can get their training formally recognised."

Moore adds that structured in-house company training could also be recognised under this scheme, if the firm in question is willing to submit to external auditing.

These alternative training methods offer less costly and less time-imposing methods that seem to fit the economic environment of the moment, but whether they will grow with more publicity or accreditation to fill the training vacuum – only time will tell. Likewise, whether some in print are shunning those existing official training schemes because they are unsuitable (rather than too costly) or because the company does not understand the full benefit, will similarly take time (and an upturn in the economy) to prove.

Clarity on this issue is needed sooner rather than later. The end of the last university print course has highlighted that print is on its own in ensuring its future and it needs to decide quickly whether the existing official training systems it employs in-house are working or whether an alternative is needed. As Woodward says, however it is done, the industry "needs continual professional development, to keep updating the standards and the knowledge transfer to make sure that, for the good of the industry, everybody is up to date. It’s a very challenging industry."


FURTHER EDUCATION (FE) LOANS - THE LOWDOWN

In its 2010 spending review, the government announced that it would scrap all the financial support currently given to students aged 24 and above studying A-level equivalent courses. From the academic year 2013-14, it announced that this will be replaced with a system of loans based on the way higher education (HE) loans work, with the government making £129m available for 2013/14 and £398m for 2014/15. Here are some pointers on how this will work:

  • The individual will apply for the FE loans and be assessed by the Student Loans Company (SLC)
  • Loans will be available for learners aged 24 and over, studying at Level 3 or above (including Advanced and Higher Apprenticeships). This will include those in receipt of active benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance
  • Loans will be available to meet only the upfront fee costs of training, and will be repaid once the learner has completed their course and is earning at least £21,000
  • FE loans will operate on the same basis as HE student loans, with repayments on an income contingent basis (9% above the income threshold), interest linked to inflation (RPI for incomes below £21,000 and then a sliding scale up to RPI+3% for incomes above £41,000), and any outstanding loan amount written off after 30 years
  • Where the learner and employer are meeting the costs of the course together, the loan available will be up to half of the full cost of the course

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