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Does L&D have an exclusivity problem?

On-the-job learning is essential for career and personal development, but many workers in lower paid roles do not have access to the same training opportunities as their higher-paid counterparts. Lauren Weymouth explores the exclusive nature of L&D

In the midst of a global health pandemic and an imminent financial crash, job retention has never been so important. Across the UK, employers are fighting to save staff, while workers across all sectors are desperately trying to cling onto existing roles or line up new opportunities to fill redundant positions.

For many of those in high-paid roles, years’ worth of professional development will put them at an advantage, and retaining or landing a new job will be fairly simple.

For others in lower-paid roles however, getting back onto the career ladder might not be so easy. A lack of access to the same type of training – resulting in fewer desired skills – could prevent many from getting back into work for years.

Speaking on a panel at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) Progression in Employment conference in late 2019, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), argued the lack of training available to those at lower levels – but not to those at higher levels – highlights an exclusivity issue.

“The world of training and skills is a bit of a walled garden,” he told conference delegates, simultaneously calling for all jobs in the UK to become ‘learning jobs’. Taylor said that those in – what he estimates to be – the bottom 30-40% of jobs have no way of recording their performance or progressing, thus preventing them from being socially mobile.

“While middle-class professionals have CVs, sophisticated forms of performance management and LinkedIn accounts, for unskilled and casual workers – and many of the self-employed – there is very little way for them to record achievements or growth in their work. Most gig workers aren’t even able to access and own their customer satisfaction ratings,” Taylor explains.

Getting caught in the low-pay, low-skill cycle

Currently, figures by the IES suggest one in six UK workers on low pay manage to escape low pay in a decade, although for many, it can be much longer. “Many yo-yo between low pay and no pay – also known as the low-pay-no-pay cycle,” says Dan Lucy, principal research fellow at the IES.

Lucy believes this is partly to do with poor job quality, but also a “lack of progression opportunities or pathways”. “Even where such pathways do exist, there are often barriers to progression, such as the need to work part time and the lack of available good quality part-time jobs,” he explains.

“This is particularly an issue for women, who comprise a large proportion of low-paid, part-time workers in sectors such as retail and social care. It is not solely an issue of lack of training, but it is often both less available and less accessible to those on low incomes,” Lucy adds.

Data released by the UK government’s Social Mobility Commission in its Adult Skills Gap Report back this up, highlighting that the UK lags behind other countries in giving adults a second chance to get on.

“Compared to its main competitors, the UK spends relatively little time on vocational skills and investment in the labour market to increase adult level skills,” the report states. Wholesale and retail sectors were among those to spend the least.

Furthermore, the report revealed people in managerial, professional and associate professional occupations access training much more often than those in intermediate, routine or manual roles, and that high-qualified workers in senior positions are prioritised for skill investment.

Mike Hawking, policy and partnerships manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, argues work should be a “reliable route out of poverty in the UK”, but a lack of access to skills, training and development can “block the route” for many workers across the country.

Hawking says this lack of training for low-paid staff, combined with cuts to training budgets, can “sweep many into poverty”, despite being in work.

“People in this position tell us that the training they receive is often limited to the basics, such as health and safety which, while important, doesn’t add opportunities to progress,” he says. “The poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access training, which leaves many trapped and unable to learn new skills that could unlock them from poverty.”

New demands for skills

Technology, automation and AI are also likely to increase the demand for new skills in the workplace, as it pushes many people in automatable roles out of work.

Research into the effects of automation on jobs in the US, published by McKinsey & Company, revealed individuals with high school qualifications or less are four times more likely to be in a ‘highly automatable role’ than individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher – and as much as 14 times more vulnerable than someone with a graduate degree. There is little evidence to suggest this is any different in the UK either.

“With accelerating technology and automation, there is an increasing emphasis on employers to help their staff adapt to new technology and either learn new skills to be able to undertake new tasks or roles, or possibly support them in developing alternative careers,” Lucy says.

“L&D will likely be under increasing pressure to find ways to support the development of the entire workforce, both to support the effective operation of the business, but also from a corporate social responsibility perspective.”

There is no shortage of demand for greater L&D opportunities. According to Deloitte’s Human Capital Report 2019, the top-rated trend among professionals was the need to improve L&D. Of those who responded to the survey, a staggering 86% said they rated the need to improve L&D as ‘important or very important’, yet only 10% of respondents felt very ready to address it.

Stephen Humphreys, country director at e-learning company GoodHabitz, claims only half of companies make this kind of training available to their employees. “It also depends on who you work for and the company culture as to whether or not you will have the opportunity,” he says.

Success stories

For some companies, though, providing L&D opportunities for staff at all levels is integral to the way they operate.

At Edinburgh City Council, learning and development is advertised as a key part of any role before new candidates join. New staff are invited to join a candidate portal to complete digital learning before starting, and once they join the team, staff at all levels are invited to attend regular one-to-ones with line managers to discuss workload and wellbeing, as well as new opportunities for learning and development.

“They also have an annual looking-back and looking-forward conversation where there is a strong focus on their personal and professional development,” Margaret-Ann Love, the council’s lead HR consultant, explains.

“We are working hard to change the learning culture in our organisation, moving away more from the traditional classroom-based learning to more blended and digital approaches, and also encouraging everyone to take some responsibility for their own learning and career development.

“By offering more digital learning resources, employees can learn at their own pace as and when they need it. We are also promoting coaching and mentoring, as well as buddying up with more experienced colleagues on the job for learning in the
flow of work.”

Separately, the council’s front-line care workers are also offered nine-day ‘blended learning programmes’ when they join the organisation, which results in vocational qualifications in social care, allowing them to advance their career both within and outside of the organisation.

“We have articulated how essential learning is for all job roles in our organisation so that our employees are clear about what we expect of them and become more competent and confident in their roles. This is also designed to help our organisation keep safe,” Love says.

Accountancy firm EY is another example of a company placing a greater emphasis on L&D. The company employs 270,000 staff across the world, many of whom are at opposite ends of both the pay and skill level. But the firm’s talent development director, Patricia McEvoy, says all employees, regardless of their role, are given access to a wide variety of learning resources.

“We’ve introduced ‘EY Badges’, a learning and accreditation offering attainable to all staff, which aims to give everyone the opportunity to invest in their own career by differentiating their skills,” McEvoy says. She explains how the badges also allow people to complete training in automated areas such as blockchain and AI to ensure their roles are still “relevant and increasingly in demand in the future”.

Barriers to progression

So, despite a clear demand and case studies of success, what are the barriers preventing other companies from following suit?

Humphreys believes a key challenge in the UK is that “a lot of people are not screen-based”, meaning they have limited access to learning recourses provided by employers, which are often virtual.

“Added to this, a lot of workers are on zero-hours contracts, which means many of them don’t have a company email and they might not qualify for access to e-learning resources,” he adds. “Communication is a barrier too. A lot of L&D departments lack the resources to keep encouraging people to use learning resources and raised awareness of what is available to them.”

Learning and development coach Kenny Temowo champions more integrated learning processes and argues that the main barriers are not necessarily around technology, but are centred around internal workplace culture. “This could be product managers wanting to be part of a cohort of other product managers, for example, as that will allow them to have more ‘open’ conversations,” he says.

“I remember being part of a company and applying to a course, only to be told I had to be at a certain ‘grade’ to attend. It was the first time I’d heard this – I was disappointed and confused. I was passionate about the topic and I felt I would’ve added value to the session. I felt perhaps the target audience wanted to have a ‘closed door’ conversation,” he says. “This is something many companies do without realising they’re doing it.”

Adopting learning cultures

Through work funded by the JP Morgan Foundation, the IES explored good practice in career progression for low-paid workers across six countries, which found many of the ‘good practice employers’ operated with similar principles.

The companies that showcased more accessible L&D opportunities for staff of all levels were those with a stronger focus on workplace culture and valuing staff; a focus on creating a culture of development and growth (through formal and informal development); and a focus on creating conditions under which a culture like this might develop.

Temowo firmly believes creating ‘learning cultures’ will be the key driver to ensuring more employers provide greater social mobility for all.

Much like Taylor’s suggestion of making all jobs ‘learning jobs’, Temowo believes that in order for L&D to be truly accessible to all levels, it needs to become “less about courses and classes and more strategic”.

He suggests companies put greater emphasis on behavioural insights to understand employees’ individual needs, rather than giving them the option to participate in optional courses, which they may not have the time or resources to complete.

“It’s all about data-driven decision-making: running behavioural diagnoses will help you understand where to begin and focus design efforts,” he explains.

“If properly done, your diagnosis should flag up a range of possible interventions (not only ‘classroom training’), providing data on how changes in employee capability, opportunities and motivation might influence employee behaviour.”

Breaking down the wall

If a large number of companies adopt these kind of cultures – whereby learning is embedded in organisational strategy, rather than an optional extra – Temowo believes there is a much higher chance of making L&D more inclusive to people of all levels.

But he also suggests a contributor to L&D’s exclusivity problem is its image, and its portrayal of a type of learning that is not accessible to all. For example, he claims conversations around L&D can be exclusive in themselves. “I find that social media conversations tend to focus ‘inwards’, with an ‘us vs them’ tone to them (them being the business),” he explains.

This is similarly the case for L&D podcasts, he adds, which he believes can often be “too concerned with jargon such as 702010 and learning styles, most of which seem geared to helping L&D be better at understanding L&D stuff”.

Will Gosling, human capital lead at Deloitte, agrees that L&D has an ‘image problem’ that needs to be dealt with in order to make space for inclusivity. “It is still fairly associated with white collar service-led skills,” he says.

“The re-skilling that’s required needs to be as close to the customer as possible, particularly with a lower skilled workforce. Therefore, line management should be the driving force. Perhaps the role of L&D needs to be more strategic instead, so that it’s more commercial and involves partnering with frontline management, rather than being a separate entity.”

Companies could also look towards introducing more helpful language into the organisation, too – language that will reflect the company’s approach to learning, Temowo says. He also believes there’s a need for L&D functions to go on ‘internal roadshows’, taking the business “on the journey by showing people how what you do is different, and is not just compliance or classroom training”.

“For the most part,” he says, “programmatic exclusivity hurts not only the business (you’re unable to reach people fast enough), but also the individual (they miss out on the opportunity to practice crucial behaviours).”

Over the coming months, the role of L&D will find itself under the spotlight for its ability – or lack of – to give people of all skill levels greater opportunities in life. As people struggle to retain and get new jobs, questions will be asked about the exclusivity of such a crucial part of professional development.

“Low-pay/low-skill doesn’t mean low potential,” the IES’ Lucy says. “In fact, the low-paid workers who we are relying on now are essentially ‘key-workers’ and are keeping some of our major services going.

“If anything comes of the coronavirus crisis, it is the realisation that we should be valuing more, and ensuring that we make the use of all the skills that these people have, and supplementing their L&D to do this.”