It is a well-known fact that the UK is struggling in the grip of a puzzling productivity problem. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics confirm that output per hour in the UK lags 18 percentage points behind the G7 average. This gap widens to a staggering 36 percentage points when the UK is compared to Germany. The reasons for this gap are causing concern for decision makers in business and government alike. These figures can present a quandary for business leaders and HR professionals as they consider how to boost productivity on an individual level by empowering and engaging staff to reach their full potential.
Education and training are key tools in the hands of business leaders struggling to make a difference in this respect. Investing in learning and development options for employees is important not only as a boost to skills, but can also have a significant impact on employee engagement. The importance of education in addressing the UK’s productivity problems is well-recognised, but the details of this approach, outlining how best to use education to combat the issue, have so far been lacking. A recent report from the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills committee scrutinises the value of the government’s Productivity Plan for this very reason. The committee of MPs called for greater detail from the government around plans to improve both ‘basic’ and ‘employability’ skills.
While the importance of education in addressing productivity levels is widely acknowledged, as a nation we still retain a limited understanding of the lifelong role of learning. The simple fact is that the skills and knowledge we pick up during the early part of our life will not necessarily prepare us for the challenges of a rapidly changing work environment. For HR professionals and business leaders, education can be used to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to adapt to fulfil their potential at all stages of their career.
Businesses and education providers need to work closely together to equip people with those most valued and most needed skills. Part-time, work-based training solutions, in which education is delivered alongside practical application, ensure that learning can be directly tailored to empower individuals in their work-life. Advances in education technology mean that learning has become increasingly personalised. Online courses offer flexibility, giving learners the power to choose when, where and how to study. Importantly, this flexible education can take place while individuals are still in work, enabling learners to directly apply the skills they develop in their studies. So the ability to deliver high-quality learning to employees without removing them from the workplace for long periods of time has an impact not only on their productivity but ultimately on the skills they learn too.
The benefits of investment in this kind of training should not be underestimated. In my work with businesses as part of my role at the Open University I regularly hear from employers of all sizes who have seen marked improvements in employee engagement as a result of their decision to invest in education for staff. Maintaining and increasing engagement has a key part to play in Britain’s attempts to boost productivity.
Productivity underpins economic growth, playing a vital role in our economy and society as a whole. The skills businesses most need are undergoing rapid change, particularly as a result of developments in technology. This means that re-training and upskilling existing employees is more crucial than ever if businesses are to ‘future-proof’ their workforces, securing their own productivity.
Steve Hill is director of external engagement at The Open University