Employers claim that the education system does not supply the material for an effective workforce. NVQ courses provide the solution.
As I grapple with the financial intricacies I need to master to gain my level 5 National Vocational Qualification in management, I think back to my long hours alone with Beowulf. Studying the Old English poem honed my analytical skills and taught me a lot about the origins of the English language. But I doubt whether it did much to help me communicate effectively with my colleagues and our customers; and it did not begin to equip me to decipher a spreadsheet.
This is not the lead-in to an argument in favour of a narrow specialisation in the education of managers or anyone else. I would be facing rather bigger problems now had my learning concentrated on, say, the maintenance of the once-ubiquitous Strowger electro-mechanical telephone exchange frames or the implementation of safety measures in deep coal mines.
As managers we can see how rapidly yesterday's specialist knowledge becomes dinosaur fodder. We are learning to prize staff who are able and keen to update their skills and to adapt to new roles; and we realise that the most durable managerial asset is the ability to identify new demands and to determine and carry through the strategies to meet them. Whatever its attractions in the past, narrowly utilitarian preparation tends to carry a very short sell-by date now.
Up to the middle of this century industry was able to draw on two distinct sources for its managerial and technical cadres. Big companies relied heavily on the universities to supply management material, recruiting mainly economics and arts graduates as generalists, and engineers and scientists for technological roles. At the same time companies continued to produce a home-grown stream of technical and financial managers bred in the Victorian pattern - men with a minimum of academic education who had often, after serving high-quality apprenticeships, obtained professional qualifications by studying at night-school.
The understandable determination of the engineering institutions - prior to Sir Monty Finniston's report in the late '70s - to secure the status of all-graduate professions, dried up this supply of shopfloor professionals. The subsequent dearth of production engineers may have helped persuade the institutions to look for new ways of facilitating progress from the shop floor. But there is a lot of catching up to do before industry can again rely on a supply of these practical managers.
Meanwhile, the withering of the traditional time-serving apprenticeship, superb at its best, but too often hidebound in structure and content, has left a gap in the supply of shopfloor skills which full-time further education courses have not been able to fill. And the notion that a spell in pure academe is the right preparation for general management is under challenge from a plethora of new higher education courses, ranging from management studies to cosmetic science and catering.
There have been constant complaints from management that the education system is not providing the material industry needs for the creation of an effective modern workforce. Graduate unemployment has, for the moment, diminished employers' concern that academic courses tend to instil a disdain for industry; but dissatisfaction with the output of the schools remains and has helped push the Government towards radical remedial measures. Employers have been eager to help specify the qualities that are needed in entrants. The ability to analyse and solve problems, to take responsibility for one's own progress, to communicate effectively, to apply numerical skills and information technology, to co-operate with colleagues, are among the attributes they prize. Reports from employer organisations tend to rate these as far more important than either academic or occupational skills.
Over the past decade the school system has tried hard to respond to these demands with measures like the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, industry secondments for teachers, and vocationally-oriented certificates for secondary school pupils. But when it comes to the crunch most recruiters still stick to what they know, rather than try to assess the true worth of these often confusing new developments. Whatever other achievements a school leaver may have on record, employers still tend to count the GCSEs and the A levels.
I suggest that the time is now coming to face up to this ambivalence. Next year some 70,000 pupils will be embarking on General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) courses. These are high-quality programmes which are not concerned with learning specialised skills, but do involve studying in a way that develops the very qualities that management keeps saying it wants. Although the courses are related to broad occupational areas, such as manufacturing, they address a body of knowledge and understanding equivalent to that of GCSEs and A levels. They are as intellectually demanding and as rigorously assessed.
With GNVQs, either at intermediate level instead of GCSEs, or at advanced level in place of A levels, the leavers you recruit will be ready for training in occupational skills. Occupational NVQs then provide the framework to ensure that a new employee trains to the level of competence needed (all the way up to a graduate level qualification in the case of management trainees and in other senior roles in the future).
But GNVQs are also a valid entry qualification for higher education. That opens an exciting prospect, of course. You could, before long, have access to graduates who are capable of quoting long passages from Beowulf while manipulating a 3-D spreadsheet.