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Small employers question the nation’s skills pool

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Small firms have serious doubts about the quality of training and skills among the general population, a new survey has revealed.

According to research carried out by the Forum of Private Business (FPB), the vast majority of small firms polled expressed themselves happy with the skills of their own workforces, some 84 per cent describing the level as good or excellent.

It was a different picture, however, when it came to assessing training and skills in the wider community.

The FPB’s quarterly referendum ballot of its members found that only 1 per cent of the small firms who responded rate the skills of their local workforce as ‘excellent’ and only 25 per cent judge them as ‘good’.

A similarly pessimistic evaluation of the skills provision of local schools and colleges also emerged from the survey. Just 3 per cent of firms thought it to be ‘excellent’ and only 29 per cent ‘good’.

Phil Orford, the FPB’s chief executive, said: “The clear message is that small business owners are by no means inherently negative about employees’ abilities. Most of them highly rate the skills of their own workers, many of whom will have no doubt benefited from valuable on-the-job training.

“However, few small firms seem to place much faith in the ability of schools and colleges to properly prepare people for the workplace. Consequently, most of them doubt they can easily recruit people with the skills and abilities they are looking for among the local workforce.”

Mr Orford went on to recommend a strategic rethink on skills provision: “If there is going to be an economic recovery in 2010, it is vital that small businesses can find employees with the right attributes quickly and easily. As a result, we would urge the government to think long and hard about how learning can be better tailored to meet the needs of industry.”

Doubts were likewise raised in the survey about the supply of industry-specific skills. Over a quarter (26 per cent) of respondents considered that skills relating to individual industries were ‘poor’ in quality, while 11 per cent believed they were ‘very poor’.

Mr Orford commented: “If Britain is going to move towards a knowledge-based, high-tech economy, as the government has suggested, then this is something which needs to be addressed.”

The need for good skills training was highlighted by another finding of the survey. Nearly half (44 per cent) of the business owners said their need for training had increased in 2009 and 40 per cent reported a rise in the amount of time they spent on internal training.