Skill shortages have for a long time been at the heart of what is holding British manufacturing businesses back – even though interest rates are now on a par, if not better than most of our EU competitors reports Steve Thomas-Emberson

So interest rates are no longer a high priority for businesses but skills are. Anybody reading the business pages of the UK’s broadsheets over the last 20 years would have become sickened to death by the number of successive government initiatives on training.

In this case for ‘initiative’ read ‘inertia’. Government has failed comprehensively to face facts and fully embrace the urgent need for proper management training as an ongoing procedure within UK industry.

Where are the programmes? Where are the tax breaks for training? Most important of all, where is the direction? You’ve guessed it. There is none.

While this is an overall view of UK plc, what about the great British packaging industry. How is it fairing? On this matter there are conflicting signs… and signs are all that we have as there is no real data or records specifically related to the industry.

On one hand we have a sales per employee figure of £86 900 which is in the top half of UK manufacturing. Unfortunately, there are only two recognised packaging qualifications for the industry as a whole and one of these is of a very low level training requirement.

What then do we need? Ian Dent of the Packaging Federation explains: “The packaging industry is like a lot of UK manufacturing in that people rise up through the ranks. What we need is qualified mid and upper management people with MBAs.

“Unfortunately, when margins are low some companies do not have either the time or the correct level of investment. It is a typical chicken and egg situation.”

John Webb-Jenkins at the Institute of Packaging echoed this view. “Industry has to train itself,” he says. “This is important from a technology point of view as well as management.

“Technical training fits the anorak need but there is a great need for a total management course that incorporates all sectors – people skills, sales, accounting, marketing, as well as the technical side.

“A programme for industry needs to be developed. There are major shortfalls in technically aware sales people and this is particularly relevant for exports so, yes, there is a great deal to be done!”

Well, that’s the negative side and one that is not to be taken lightly. The question is what can be done and what is being done? Three months ago the Institute of Packaging appointed Gordon Stewart head of education, training and development to further develop the IoP’s training base.

“My own background is one of educating and training rather than packaging but, in the short time I have been at the IoP, I’ve realised that the industry has some very talented people in it but needs a whole lot more.

“Governments have faced a lot of criticism but what they have set up is the Qualification and Curriculum Authority which is a national body with a responsibility to accredit training bodies such as us.

“This will enable us to expand our packaging course base to give people proper certified courses. Our main area has been technological but there is a need for management training as well. One of our initiatives in this area is corporate partnering.

“Qualified packaging people go into a company and evaluate the management skills in all sectors and then make a proposal for the training of the relevant staff.

“This could mean that the relevant staff study for packaging qualifications but also may include generic management qualifications as well.

“It is a complete skills overview. What is going to be important in training and providing skilled personnel is the need for the whole process to be available in flexible formats, for example on-line learning backed up by person to person tuition. Study can be suitable for employee and company alike.”

Stewart’s last point is a critical one as UK industry per se now puts greater emphasis on vocational qualifications rather than further education and this is seen as being particularly relevant in manufacturing. The government must address the issues.

The expansion of work-based training schemes, preferably with either government subsidies or a tax efficient plan could be just the start. First it must wake up to the fact that, however successful the packaging industry is, training and skills equals increased profits, and increased profits help UK plc.