One-size-fits-all training and big numbers
Workplace training – it ranges from banal box-ticking bureaucracy to a fascinating and useful journey of discovery. Everyone can cite courses they've been obliged to follow but which had no relevance to their needs. But equally, there are plenty who remember workplace courses that genuinely opened up new worlds for them and led to increased engagement, pay and conditions.
The most recent OECD report on learning around the world (Education At A Glance) shows that the western world is becoming better educated. More people are completing their schooling and the number of those with advanced qualifications continues to grow. In work, training remains significant, and most employees have followed a course or done some informal learning during the year before the report was published.
In OECD member countries, about 50% of all employed adults participate in employer-sponsored formal or informal training every year. This rises to around 60% in Denmark, Finland, Netherlands and Norway, but is notably lower in France (40%), Italy and Poland.
For whoever has will be given more
It's clear that the people who train most are the people who are already trained well. 60% who have good ICT skills participate in training, while 18% who have no computer experience do. 60% of those in skilled professions participate, but only about 25% of those in 'elementary' occupations. As the OECD reports, "the most-highly skilled adults are thus about three times as likely to participate in training than are the least skilled adults". There are exceptions: in Finland – the country where training seems to be taken more seriously than anywhere else - 80% of those in skilled jobs train, but it's also notable that nearly 50% of those in elementary jobs participate too.
The report also finds that in a world where temporary contracts are more widespread than ever before, employers expect staff to come to them with the relevant training. There's a significant difference between training for temps and training for permanent employees, with the latter enjoying opportunities denied to their colleagues who have temporary contracts.
The stats… and the reality
The German apprenticeship is famous around the world, and it's often suggested that it contributes to the country's remarkable economic success. The French are well known for producing lots despite taking long holidays.
But the report produces one or two surprises – in Germany only 10% of those in elementary occupations train. In France, which is notable for high productivity, only 50% of high skilled workers participate.
It's reasonable to ask what's going on there. I think the answer is that you can gather statistics about how much training people do in terms of number of courses or even hours spent, but it's difficult to capture the true nature of what goes on.
One explanation is that the quality and relevance of training counts for a great deal. Induction videos showing how to drive a forklift safely are irrelevant to the needs of sales staff, but would be included in any survey on training. Likewise, a course on how to run a meeting will be no use to somebody who's just started working on a production line.
Too many courses are still seen as tedious tasks you need to get through in order to keep the boss or Human Resources happy. As a result, staff (quite rationally) take the path of least resistance and tick the various boxes, take the tests with a minimum of effort, and then move on to more useful tasks.
So a valid criticism of the OECD report is that it doesn't capture whether all that time spent training is well spent.
The problems of wholesale training
That criticism can apply at company-level too. Show me a training course that every member of staff in the entire company must follow, and I'll show you a course that's irrelevant to the needs of individual staff. You may argue that bulk training is worth it in the long run, because it saves HR the time-consuming business of deciding whether each employee needs it, and has done it, and has their certificate to say they've done it. And therefore, it lowers costs.
But consider the cost of lost days caused by inappropriate training, the interruption to projects, the cancellation of meetings due to absence, the loss of morale as staff realise they're simply a number, and the cynicism people feel when they see yet another course they have to attend just to be able to tick a box.
In an ideal world – and we're not there yet – every staff member would have their personal learning plan matching their specialised work and career needs. Clearly, technology has already started helping employees get the individualised training they need, so an expansion of online learning would help a great many companies.