Skills for growth or growing pains? Mick Jackson

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Are we saying that logistics is a low skill sector where there is no need for a “new technician class”?
On 12th November, the Whitehall Department for Business Innovation and Skills published its long awaited white paper: Skills for Growth.
In his foreword to the paper, the secretary of state asserts that: “Skills are a key part of our plan for economic recovery and, as such, an urgent challenge.”
With the exception of the few dissenters who every so often find their way to the letters pages, I think we all agree with those sentiments. What we don’t necessarily agree on is the way to achieve those increased skills. The white paper lists six priorities for skills development:

Promoting skills for economic prosperity
Expanding apprenticeships to build a new technician class
Responding to businesses and key sectors
Equipping adults for future jobs
Raising business investment in workforce productivity
Improving training at the heart of a simpler system.
Unsurprisingly, these are all interlinked, so dealing with only one or two of them in a column such as this is dangerous. However…
A key focus of the paper and the Whitehall strategy is apprenticeships. Importantly, this is something that is shared by both the main parties so is a policy that is likely to continue irrespective of the results of next year’s election.
I have written many times about apprenticeships and there are a number of initiatives across the sector and around the country that suggest we are on the cusp of promoting and using apprenticeships in a much more effective way.
The focus in priority two in the list is to build a “new technician class”. My reading of this class is that it straddles the old Level 3/Level 4 and is a technical competence rather than managerial. In logistics, the next step up from basic Level 2 operative competence is normally only to supervisory or management at Level 3.
Are we really saying that logistics is inherently a low skill sector where there is no need for a “new technician class”? Current wisdom has it that there is essentially no difference between a Level 2 qualification gained by a light-van driver and a Level 2 qualification held by the driver of a wagon and drag.
It also suggests that there is no difference between the holder of a Level 2 qualification who is engaged in trunking between two fixed points and another Level 2 who carries out multi-drop and collections in a CD parcels round.
Feedback that comes from employer workshops suggests that people are content with that situation but to me, to paraphrase an old saying, the system is an ass. Maybe we should make our driving qualifications “vehicle-type specific” and build in a realistic recognition of skills demands towards a “new technician class”.
Does the same apply potentially to warehouse and administration staff in our operations? As a function, logistics has delivered remarkable efficiencies into UK plc over the past 25 years or so. Much of that efficiency gain has been system-driven, which in some sectors has meant automation.
As this develops further, what will be our response? I have written many times before in this column that we risk de-skilling our workforce and thereby institutionalising them with a car assembly mentality. Does this have to be the case? As technological support to the logistics function increases, so too does the pressure to use that technology to perform. Is there an opportunity here, offered by new technology, to change some logistics employees from what you might call “doing employees” to “thinking employees”. Does the “new technician class” offer us this potential?
Certainly, if we are to professionalise this sector and make it attractive as a career, we need to start with the self-respect of the operatives. Drivers, as with bank managers and teachers, once commanded a certain respect as “Knights of the Road”. Maybe it’s time to resurrect that respect and have some drivers and warehouse operatives accorded something closer to “new technician class” status.
Imagine for a moment that we can engender that culture change then go back and re-read the above list of priorities of the white paper. Easy isn’t it?

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