Are employees too busy for training?

My last blog talked about the UK's weaknesses in basic skills - literacy, numeracy and problem-solving - and how population ageing will make it more important for us to learn throughout life.

Our Manifesto for Work said that future governments will need to take the lead in building a culture and infrastructure that supports lifelong learning.

We talk about culture because changes to the content of education and training and how it is financed won't deliver the paradigm shift we need on their own.  Adults must have an appetite for learning so they are willing and able to take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills or refresh existing areas of competence.

According to the 2010 National Adult Learner Survey for England, lifelong learning is an idea that carries near universal support.  Among 16-69 year olds not in continuous full-time education, 93% agreed that 'learning is something you should do throughout your life' and 94% agreed that 'to succeed at work you need to keep improving your knowledge and skills'.  However, the proportion of this group who had participated in at least one learning activity in the preceding three years - which could have been formal (leading to a qualification), non-formal or informal - was just 69%, compared with 80% in the three years to 2005.  The recession is thought to be the main explanation for the drop as many employers cut back on off-the-job training and more individuals identified cost as a barrier to learning.

Whereas 81% of full-time employees, 72% of part-time employees, 74% of the self-employed and 64% of the unemployed had participated in learning activity, the proportions for groups outside the labour market were much lower - part of a more general and persistent pattern of inequality in learning participation (corroborated in the more recent PIAAC survey).   

A CIPD survey of employees about agile working carried out last autumn provides some additional insight on what employees think about work-related training and development (summarised in the chart below).

Nearly twice as many employees (47%) disagreed with the statement "I am worried whether my skills will be relevant in the future" than agreed with it (25%).  Of course, we can't tell if that response is because people don't believe their skills will lose their relevance or because most employees aren't the worrying kind - nevertheless, without concern there is unlikely to be much action.  The 35-54 age group was most likely to agree with this statement.  Employees with degrees and postgraduate qualifications, the group we'd expect to be most aware of how quickly knowledge and skills can become outdated, were also more likely than others to agree with the statement.

Our employee surveys pick up significant dissatisfaction with progression opportunities.  In this case, while 28% of employees agreed with the statement "The training I access through my organisation is relevant beyond my immediate duties", 34% disagreed.  The proportion in agreement with the statement declines with age - which is consistent with opportunities to develop and progress fading away as employees get older - but the explanation is not that simple because the proportion of those aged 55 and over who agreed with the statement was higher than it was for both 35-44 year olds and 45-54 year olds.  There may be differences across age groups in perceptions of relevance.  For example, those aged 55 and over may be thinking about the relevance of training opportunities to their plans for life both pre and post retirement whereas younger age groups may think about relevance in a more specific way, such as whether training allows them to progress to a better job with their current employer or with another employer.

More people agreed with the statement "I can rarely find time for training and development" (35%) than disagreed with it (33%).  There was a strong positive correlation between this question and the question capturing concern about skills becoming outdated (r=0.61).  So people concerned about their skills losing relevance were likely at the same time to say they rarely found the time to do anything about it!  Of course, employees may be worried about their skills losing relevance precisely because they know they are not putting enough time into keeping them relevant. 

Workload will be a factor here.  There is a strong positive correlation (r=0.63) between this question and another question in the survey capturing perceptions of being over-stretched - 56% of employees who thought they were over-stretched said they rarely found time for training and development whereas the proportion was just 16% for those who thought they were not over-stretched.  This doesn't mean that people who were less stretched actually participated in more training and development, simply that they are less likely to say lack of time is a reason for not doing it.

Those in management positions - who are likely to have more freedom to decide how they spend their time than other employees - were more likely to say they rarely could find time for training and development although the overall correlation is modest (r=0.05 when owner-managers and top management are excluded).  Time pressures apart, managers may think their need for development is limited because of past investments in their human capital ("how do you follow up the MBA?") or because they think their career has reached a plateau.

Apart from the questions on training and workload already discussed, the variables most strongly correlated with the question on whether employees could find the time for training were a set of questions capturing various aspects of fair treatment, management capability and the psychological contract (reported in the chart below).  These show that whether employees are able to find the time for training and development depends on how they think they are treated at work.


Fair treatment is important.  Those who feel they are treated and rewarded fairly, who feel trusted and who think they have enough say in decisions affecting them are less likely to say they rarely can find time for training and development.  In contrast, those who feel their employer has not honoured the psychological contract and - adopting the terms used by Adam Grant in his keynote speech at last year's CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition - see their employer as a 'taker' rather than a 'giver' are likely to think time for training and development is one of the things that has been taken away.

Lack of time for training and development is also less of an issue when employees think their employer values them enough to show some flexibility in meeting their needs.  Flexibility might be formal - written into policies - or informal - trusting line managers enough for them to feel confident in applying a degree of discretion.  Whether employees think their line manager flexes the rules for them depends on whether line managers are given the freedom to do so.  It also depends on whether line managers want to flex the rules.

The minority of employees who are not satisfied with the relationship with their line manager are more likely to say they rarely can find time for training and development.  Analysis of previous CIPD Employee Outlook surveys has shown that employees who are dissatisfied with their line manager often feel they are under uncomfortable pressure on a regular basis (often due to workload) or that they are being treated unfairly or that support is lacking.  Another insight from these surveys is that many employees say career development and coaching do not feature regularly in the work-related discussions they have with line managers. If employees think their manager doesn't see training and development as a priority - because he/she talks about it infrequently and hardly ever makes time for it - it would be no surprise if some of them conclude there is little point in pursuing the topic on their own and mentally place it in the "too busy for this" category.

I would expect other personal and work-related factors not captured in this survey to have an effect on whether people say they can find time for training.  One might be the presence and sophistication of training development strategies and plans and the extent to which they reflect reality (to an extent this ought to be captured by Investor in People status).  And a consistent finding from academic studies is that, even after controlling for other factors, employees in unionised workplaces are more likely to receive training than employees in non-unionised workplaces.

Put together, the data suggest that what happens in the workplace could have a significant impact on whether employees adopt and maintain the learning habit.  Excessive workloads can crowd out training and development if they make employees feel over-stretched (for example, if employees have no flexibility in how they approach their work, or if they feel they are not being given any support).  Employers also need to demonstrate that they have 'met their side of the bargain' when it comes to training and development.  However, an organisation that takes Investors in People and employee engagement seriously should find itself tackling most or all the perceived barriers covered in this blog.

So far, we have taken employees at face value when they say they rarely can find time for training and development.  But what if lack of time isn't the only factor discouraging employees from keeping their skills up to date?  This will be covered in my next blog Time to tackle the training tedium.

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  • You are right, the data is compelling and this is, as you know, a longstanding challenge for employees, employers and training providers. I cannot say that I have seen anyone 'crack' it.

    Our way of managing the challenge head on is through our Learning to Learn half day course which is as much about helping the learner to understand how they prefer to learn, as it is about getting their commitment to the programme.

    I look forward to your next post.