Features: November 5th, 2004

Training Awards Levering Change

By Dr Graeme Hall, Acting Chief Executive, UK Skills

There are encouraging signs that the UK public sector is taking training more seriously. Central and local government are setting an example to the private sector by investing in the skills of its own staff in order to achieve public service objectives. This backs up the Government’s call to invest time and money in training to ensure that the UK continues to be a successful modern economy.

Training awards for organisations and employees

This strengthened commitment to training is evidenced by the most recent National Training Awards. The awards, which are run by UK Skills on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, have seen a dramatic rise in the number of public sector entries selected as finalists for the 2004 awards.

There has been a 350% increase in the number of finalists from central government and its agencies, compared to the performance of the same sector in 2003’s awards. Local authorities also did well this year, with a 133% increase on the number that reached the final stage of the awards in 2003.

21 of these public sector finalists have gone on to win national and regional training awards. Two more sector finalists were highly commended. Clearly, both central and local government are practicing what they preach.

Last year, the Government launched its Skills Strategy, in a bid to ensure employers have the right skills to support the success of their businesses and that individuals have the skills they need to be both employable and personally fulfilled. This strategy is based on the interdependence of social justice and economic success and it sends an important message to businesses about the links between staff training, job satisfaction, productivity and the success of the organisation.

Rewarding employees and organisations is also one of the most effective ways to ensure that they get involved in training. While internal acknowledgement from managers of the benefits of training encourages uptake, introducing a healthy element of external competition can also help. Entering schemes such as the National Training Awards can provide an added incentive to participate and excel, at both individual and organisational level.

For example, a key priority for local government, as identified by the Pay and Workforce Strategy and the Pay Commission, is to improve and develop the skills of employees working directly with service users/customers and, furthermore, to provide those employees with greater opportunities for progression within the local government workforce. With this in mind, it has been essential for local authorities to develop a new approach to skills development and incentivisation through award schemes. This has consistently proved to be one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to motivate staff.

This year, the Education and Cultural Services Department of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral teamed up with Equipe Training Services, in a partnership which won a National Training Award.

With the growth of ‘compensation culture’, the Wirral, one of the UK’s largest local authorities, noticed its staff suffering from stress, as they were called on to appear as witnesses in an increasing number of court cases and tribunals. It found that staff were anxious when faced with an alien situation; that evidence was not always well-prepared and, in many cases, the standard of record-keeping was inadequate to support their testimony.

So the Education and Cultural Services Department organised a training programme to help staff cope, by training them in courtroom skills. The council’s stated objective was that, by the end of 2003, all Education and Cultural Services staff appearing as witnesses would be adequately trained and prepared, discharging the council’s duty to its staff and reducing the risk of payouts.

The course was delivered 36 times and 94 per cent of staff reported that it met all their learning needs. Staff from other council departments in the Wirral, the North-West and North Wales have also attended the course, generating income for the Wirral. The local authority is now better equipped to withstand the impact of claims culture. The financial benefits are potentially huge, as payments can reach six figures.

At the time of going to press, other 2004 national award winners included: Jobcentre Plus and Energy and Utility Skills; Pennine Housing 2000, Lovell Partnerships, Keepmoat, Calderdale MBC and Calderdale College; Maytree Nursery School and Lambeth Educational Psychology Service, as well the Metropolitan Borough of the Wirral.

In 2002, Plymouth City Council and Plymouth College of Further Education won a regional award for their joint investment in the city’s 420 part-time cleaning and caretaking staff who work for the council’s Building Cleaning Department, which is responsible for schools, libraries, leisure centres and council offices. The partners established a Cleaning Training Centre at the college to train the staff to national standards, to meet contract quality requirements and fulfil a need for training and development opportunities in a service with a poor image.

In 2003, Glasgow City Council won a regional award for its conflict training which cut violence to the city’s parking attendants. The authority was concerned at the number of incidents reported after it ‘inherited’ responsibility for parking enforcement from the police in 1999. Its Land Services department had a legal and moral duty to reduce the violence and aggression from the public that its parking attendants faced on the streets. Before designing the training, the council’s team worked as parking attendants for several weeks, to experience the problems first hand. They made a training video, with help from Strathclyde Police and the Health & Safety Executive, starring the staff in real life situations, and enlisted BBC Crimewatch presenter Fiona Bruce to present it.

Parking staff were also given training in dealing with violence and aggression, conflict management, customer care, what they can realistically expect whilst out on the streets, how to handle difficult customers and how to get safely out of violent situations and coping strategies. As a result of going through the training, staff morale, teamwork, ownership and patience have all increased. The parking attendants are better able to deal with conflict, as the figures show that the number of violent incidents fell and absence due to sickness and staff turnover were both significantly reduced.

These case studies highlight just some of the excellent training taking place within government agencies and local authorities. However, public sector organisations are complex and often massive, so it’s important to recognise that training courses and programmes which suit some parts of the organisation are sometimes simply not suitable for other sections.

Put simply, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to training. This is why it’s vitally important that the effectiveness of training is recognised throughout the organisation. It is the section leader or charge hand who best knows how to improve his/her team’s performance. Time and again, it is local managers that make a vital difference and turn a mediocre service into an award winner.

Overcoming barriers to get results

However, the challenge that many organisations face, within both the public and private sector, is making time for training. Some, for example, have had to shorten training courses because staff don’t want to be ‘away from the action’ for any long period of time. At the management level, there are also sometimes concerns over whether highly trained junior staff will demand pay rises or seek jobs elsewhere.

However, the reality is that training can make staff happier and improve rates of retention. The recently released Self-Esteem Society report from think-tank Demos found that 83% of respondents rated learning new skills as the top factor in boosting self-esteem. The evidence, and indeed our experience at UK Skills, would suggest that employees value a job which provides the opportunity to improve their skills.

For the public sector, there is an additional pressing incentive to train. With the possibility of a contracting public sector, following the plans outlined by Chancellor Gordon Brown in the latest Comprehensive Spending Review, training is becoming even more important for those employees that might need a wider spectrum of skills in the face of a smaller workforce.

At UK Skills, we believe that training must be seen as a priority and that the link between training and organisational success must be made explicit. People make an organisation work and it is the skills of these people that make an organisation flourish.

Our message to the public sector is: invest in training to create a more efficient, productive and flexible workforce.

We encourage public sector organisations to access the huge bank of best practice case studies we have available at the National Training Awards. These case studies cut across all sectors and demonstrate practical examples of training by organisations that have had exceptional results. We encourage you to use these practical examples as both a tool to learn from and an inspiration.