Hopes for an economic revival may founder on the deficit of shop-floor skills.
On his recent visit to Washington, John Major found time in a busy schedule to make a speech stressing that education was at the top of his domestic political agenda. A few days later the Liberal Democrats spelled out their commitment to education, pledging to increase spending by raising an extra 1p in income tax. And both these parties had been beaten to the punch by Labour, which had earlier talked of promoting a skills revolution.
Cynics might argue that this sudden enthusiasm for education is merely politicians looking for a safe issue that can - with local and European elections looming - do them no harm and possibly some good. The charitable view is that something more profound is at work. Have the politicians at last realised that whatever economic hopes the Government may have are in danger of foundering on the profound skills deficit that is a fact of everyday life in much of manufacturing?
There is growing evidence demonstrating that the problem is not simply a skills shortage among potential recruits but one of a hopeless skills deficiency in the existing workforce. Here is the answer for anyone puzzled about the persistence of the wide productivity gap between Britain and the competition despite the progress on the British shop floor in recent years. British workers are getting better at doing the job but they are still less skilled, less qualified and more poorly supervised than their counterparts in other advanced industrial countries.
In many sectors of manufacturing work, practices have to be tailored to suit the inadequacy of the labour force. Lack of shop-floor skills forces many firms to focus their efforts on simple, mass-production processes, turning out low-value-added products. In a world where successful companies have to be able to make a fast and flexible response to meet customer demand for increasingly sophisticated products, UK firms are hamstrung by production practices that have attributes of Third World economies in the early stages of industrialisation.
In recent years the National Institute for Economic and Social Research has produced a series of studies based on the actual experience of companies, comparing the performance and skills of British workers with their counterparts on the Continent. The latest one has switched its focus away from engineering and construction to food manufacturing, and biscuit-making in particular.
Biscuit-making is not the kind of activity that foments industrial revolution but our demonstrable failure to come within shouting distance of the skill and productivity levels of German, French and Dutch biscuit-makers has deep implications for the rest of manufacturing. In all the Continental plants the researchers visited, they found that workers and supervisors had much higher qualifications than their British equivalents. In the technically demanding areas of process engineering and technical support, 85% of the German workers were qualified to craft level or higher compared with 25% in Britain.
Continental workers were handling more complex machinery, switching more quickly from one type of work to another and using more machines at a given time with less labour. Managers could invest in more sophisticated machinery and employ batch production techniques to make often small quantities of high-value-added products for different customers.
UK managers and union officials readily conceded that workers could not match European performance levels and managers had to spend too much time on day-to-day problems which were handled by supervisors in foreign plants.
Experts who have studied our rivals' approach to education say the distinguishing feature is their unswerving commitment to educational achievement. Britain stresses achievement but it is for the minority who make the traditional progression up the A level route. There is still no widely accepted, less academic, work-related alternative, up to and beyond the age of 18, that is not seen as 'inferior'.
The National Curriculum is a step in the right direction but the British approach remains fragmented, lacking universally recognised qualifications such as Germany's meister system for craftsmen. Without this, employers find it difficult to offer better pay. In fact, studies show that most young people would do better financially to leave school at 16 rather than enter higher education.
The message for the politicians is to cut back on the rhetoric and start by making vocational education more systematic and available, as Sir Ron Dearing, the government chief adviser on tests and the curriculum, is proposing for 14-year-olds. They should replace the traditional three A levels, which force youngsters to specialise too soon, with a more broadly based approach that would see them studying half-a-dozen core subjects. More specialised skills could be grafted on later. We are good at educating an elite. What we need to learn from our rivals is how to train the masses.
Roger Eglin is associate business editor of the Sunday Times.