A country, a company, or any organization is only as great as its people. It must invest in training, formal institutions that can provide training to those who need it most, and a clear system of standards and credentials. In other words, people must be able to know what to do, and then be properly compensated for those skills.
It seems like a very clear and concrete goal, and yet one look at the history of the United Kingdom reveals a series of fumbling attempts to institutionalize training. Since the Medieval Ages, in fact, training was left to the private sector, like guilds and, later on, universities.
The government did become more active after the Industrial Revolution, though it took several decades, and pressure from groups like The Associated British Chambers of Commerce, for them to create trade unions and committees. In fact, it was only in 1925 that the United Kingdom established Government Training Centers, which provided six-month skill courses as a pre-requisite for getting unemployment benefits. Junior Instructional Centers were also established to help women find domestic employment.
Then in 1964, after two papers based on national surveys of the country’s below-par skill levels, the United Kingdom signed the Industrial Training Act. This led to training boards, and ideally, would have worked with the Secretary of State for Employment to create training opportunities through a levy/grant system.
This looked good on paper. In reality, the Training Act had little effect on the general work force. Most of its provisions were aimed at large companies and at the manufacturing industry. It did not have any regulations for the service industry, and the criteria to evaluate training were very vague, making it hard for companies to get grants or exemptions from levies.
Eventually the Training Act’s levy/grant scheme was further refined, and the government launched the Training Opportunities Programme that allowed people to get accelerated training in particular industries. This did have significant impact on growth industries, where it was crucial to prepare the workforce to handle breakthrough technology or learn skills for “the new age.”
When the United Kingdom went through an unemployment crisis in the 1970s, the Training Act responded by creating the Youth Opportunities Programme. Here, people who had to drop out of school—partially for economic reasons—could get skill enhancement courses and gain work experience.
Then the economic crisis lead companies to cut back on costs. The Training Act existed only in paper. In reality, nobody could afford to spend on expensive human resource workshops. This was also the advent of the computer age, so ironically, this was the time people needed training the most, especially in industries that were technology driven.
In 1981 the government tried to fix the issue with the 1981 Employment and Training Act. However this ended up focusing on the construction and engineering industries. The International Training Boards were also replaced by the Industry Training Organisations (ITOs), which were purely voluntary and led by the employers. Government participation and support was practically negligible, and the ordinary worker could not rely on it for anything—not with the shoestring budgets and the skeletal staffing.
The Youth Opportunities Program, while laudable in its sincerity, was often criticized for poor quality of training. It also led to employers taking advantage of the cheap labor, getting trainees without offering regular jobs as a reward. It was later replaced by the Youth Training Scheme (YTS), then the Youth Training (YT), then Restart. However, the change in names did not improve the program or significantly improve the employment opportunities of its participants. It did, however, help reduce national unemployment figures, at least on paper.
Other efforts included the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) in England and Wales, and Local Enterprise Companies (LECs) in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In reality, though, these were opposed by unions and again had no significant effect on workers.
Thus, the country is still waiting for training efforts that will actually work, though at least, the government hasn’t given up trying.