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Can apprenticeships save Britain?

We have known for a long time that the UK has been failing to keep up with the major developed economies (like the USA and Germany) in labour force productivity, but we now have to worry about the speed at which the GDP is growing in the BRIC countries like China, India and Brazil. It’s not how far behind they are at present, but the speed at which they are moving that should concern us all – employers, vocational education and training providers, and policy-makers alike.

We also know that it isn’t at the top end of the skills hierarchy that we are doing badly – we have expanded our higher education system to match our competitors reasonably well. It’s at the intermediate level that we are suffering – we have too many people with low level skills who can’t perform the more complex tasks that are needed in a modern economy so we finish up using graduates to do jobs that are below their capabilities, to fill the gap.

Apprenticeships could be the answer to how we address this problem. To be effective, two things are needed; the first is that attitudes to apprenticeships must change, and that seems to be happening, but there’s still more that needs to be done. In schools particularly, we need to see apprenticeships really valued. When your local paper carries a piece on the number of leavers who have gone into apprenticeships from your local secondary school in the same way that it does with University entrants, then we will have made a breakthrough.

The other thing that’s needed is for employers to treat apprenticeships as a vehicle for driving up performance standards. And by employers I mean the managers who recruit and supervise apprentices. That’s why ILM is encouraging all managers to look at the opportunity offered by the apprenticeship system to bring about real changes in their way of working.

Apprentices can be recruited at different levels, and Advanced (level 3) and Higher (levels 4 and 5) Apprenticeships enable organisations to take on people with real potential and set them demanding but achievable targets to perform at higher levels than have previously been achieved. By bringing in new employees with no preconceptions about how things should be done, managers can bring about step changes in their ways of working.

One guaranteed route to gaining managers’ awareness of the many benefits of Apprenticeships is to fast-track their own leadership and management development with a Management Apprenticeship. These are available at Level 3 and – Higher Apprenticeships – Level 5 (there is also a Team Leading Apprenticeship at Level 2), supporting those organisations that want to build their management talent pipeline to do so. One of the great benefits of Management Apprenticeships is that they demonstrate just how significant apprenticeships are in starting people on a career path than can lead to the most senior reaches of a company. Whilst other school-leavers are building up their student debts at University, their peers can be working towards a professional qualification, supervising a team of people, managing a substantial budget and taking on the kind of responsibility that comes with a burgeoning management career.

David Cameron also made a pledge this week to make apprenticeships the ‘new norm’. He is quoted as saying he wants work-based training to sit “at the heart of our mission to rebuild the economy”.

So the challenge which National Apprenticeship Week presents to every organisation in the UK is clear – take advantage of the huge benefits of management apprenticeships by developing your next generation of leaders and managers.

Making a case for leadership and management development

It is a truth, sadly under-acknowledged, that an organisation in possession of an under-performing business must be in want of leadership and management development. Part of our mission is to shine a light on the value of this development in the hope that one day this will be universally acknowledged. ILM believes it is essential for people to understand both leadership and management right from the start of their working life, first of all as someone who is managed and then as you progress to managing and leading others.

On 10 July, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Management hosted an event to launch a newly published report from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), Leadership & Management in the UK – The Key to Sustainable Growth. The report shows the clear link between business success and leadership and management capability. ILM was part of the group which authored the report and our own research is referenced.

John Hayes MP, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, made a speech to open the proceedings, making it clear that the Government is not about to step in and direct underperforming businesses, but aims instead to help create a framework in which employers could access education and training opportunities that met their needs.

On the panel responding to the report were CEOs of three professional institutes, Charles Elvin (ILM), Ann Francke (CMI) and Peter Cheese (CIPD) along with the Institute of Employment Studies and ACAS. Not only was it rare for all three CEOs to share a panel like this, but there was clear consensus about the need to invest in leadership and management development to help organisations improve their capability.

The UK’s poor productivity record compared to its major international competitor nations is attributable principally to the long tail of under-performing companies suffering from poor leadership and management. The evidence in the report is unequivocal – UK managers are less well educated, less well trained and less well equipped with the tools and techniques needed to enable their organisations to achieve what they are capable of. Most of the gap between the UK and the USA (at the top of the productivity and performance table) would be overcome by UK if managers were equipped with the right skills.

Charles Elvin made the case for investing in leadership early in people’s careers, to prepare them for the lower levels of management, and this certainly caught the mood, with several people in the audience reinforcing that message through their questions and comments.

So what is the business case for investing in leadership and management?

Fact 1 Organisations with better qualified managers and a dedicated programme of leadership and management development perform better.

Fact 2 Better trained managers ensure a more engaged workforce and enhance employee well-being, leading to better performance, lower absenteeism and lower staff turnover.

Fact 3 Under-performing managers cost organisations money and are directly linked to business failure.

Fact 4 UK managers under-perform compared to leading competitor nations, as does UK business due to poor leadership and management.

Fact 5 If the bottom half of performers were brought up to the standard of the average, then UK plc would be a world-beater.

This report makes the case for leadership and management development very robustly, and shows quite clearly how poor management holds firms back. And now we need to ensure that those messages reach decision-makers.

In a nutshell: 5 tips for being an effective manager

Here are five tops tips intended to help you become as effective a manager as you can be.
1. Say thank you
Recognition is hugely important. Simply saying ‘thank you’ is an extraordinarily powerful thing to do and is very rarely used to full effect.

2. Check information sources
If someone gives you a piece of information that doesn’t quite feel right or doesn’t quite resonate, always check it.

3. Trust your employees and your team
People talk a lot about staff trusting their leaders, but it’s just as important for leaders to trust their teams too.

4. Be fair
Sometimes it’s very difficult to be fair. People are naturally drawn to one side of an argument over another and you need to resist that.

5. Adapt
Take risks. If you fail, make sure that you survive the failure and try again – and adapt what you do. It’s important to take risks, but you have to accept that sometimes you will fail. People are far too risk-averse, but you’ve got to be prepared to take a decision.

Effective change management in the public sector during tough economic times

Public sector managers are undergoing a period of dramatic change. Over the last decade, they have seen public spending almost double from £389bn to £703bn and become used to an ever-expanding service. With cuts to services now finally starting to bite, they are finding themselves managing during a period of contraction for the first time.

Although this presents a set of new challenges, managers can contend with the changes brought about by contraction by applying leadership and management skills they developed during growth in the public sector.

Public sector managers have been concerned about the effect of budget cuts for a number of years. In 2010 our research report Leading Change in the Public Sector investigated public sector managers’ readiness to respond to the challenges brought about the recession. While their number one issue was work pressure, they said that their top concern for the future was budget restraints. Two years on the challenges for managers remain the same.

Despite these challenges, the research identified a strong sense of optimism and opportunity. Nearly half the managers had a positive outlook. A majority also recognised that opportunities existed to innovate and introduce new business processes, improve performance at work, develop creative solutions, improve teamwork and communication, and improve staff morale and motivation.

Leaders who want to drive change should capitalise on this spirit of optimism, and empower managers to develop innovative responses to budget cuts that will improve efficiency, introduce more effective back office services and improve frontline delivery.

For effective change management to happen, managers need to be made clear what the purpose of the changes is and be given consistent goals. New government legislation and initiatives, changing strategic objectives can make this problematic. A key issue for senior managers and policy makers is how well they prepare managers to address them.

Considerable leadership and managerial skills will be required to deal effectively with the challenges brought on by the ongoing changes to the public sector.

Managers can be supported in delivering better services by moving away from a top-down target-setting culture and instead using targets more constructively. For example, they could set realistic localised targets rather than having uniform targets imposed without consultation, which is in line with best practice in leadership and management.

Public sector managers need to be better equipped with the skills and knowledge in areas such as change management, innovation and communication. Yet the one area likely to be hardest hit by spending cuts is training and development. This is an essential tool to support the kind of radical change needed, as it equips managers and their teams with the skills to make it happen. At a time when the public sector needs to maintain the highest levels of performance, the availability of ongoing support and development for managers is critical.

By Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

This article was first published in HR & Training Journal Issue 12, June 2012.