Keep on learning - CPD

Materials World magazine
,
1 Dec 2008

Continuous professional development is not just a requirement for professional qualifications, it can also increase company productivity and benefit your career. Katherine Williams reports

The Open University (OU), UK, offers off-the-shelf solutions for professional development (PD), as well as bespoke services developed in association with organisations and professional bodies.

Charles Elvin, Director of the Centre for Professional Learning and Development (CPLD) at the OU, sees the bespoke service as an advantage as courses are customised to the professional. ‘The more relevant the course is to a specific work situation and the more significant to the individual, the better they learn and use that knowledge,’ he says.

Elvin explains, ‘There is a need to add specific, highly targetted courses that don’t necessarily fall inside the size and scope of a degree. Any individual in a profession follows the professional route for more formal qualifications, such as Chartered Engineer, but as they progress through a career there may be a requirement for unrelated skills’.

Professionals such as engineers will, he says, ‘have a requirement to maintain skills on a specific front and will need to develop others to be effective and efficient in their jobs. You may be an engineer but you need to understand financial management, sales or marketing processes, and you need to lead a team’.

Day-to-day

‘We don’t want people pigeonholed in one very specific skills set. Often CPLD can be about IT skills or human resource issues – day-to-day activities for anyone in work’.

Employers can be critical of PD courses, but the benefits are real, says Elvin. ‘One of the most difficult areas within PD is proving the impact of any activity. However, we get a lot of feedback saying “I understand how to do this now”.

‘The courses tend to have a specific focus. For example, if an individual completed a financial skills course we would expect them to be able to read a balance sheet and understand forecasting.’ The process is about skills ‘you are able to use and apply in your work, where relevant’.

An issue for employers is knowing that training will produce the desired result. ‘The touchstone is “How do I know this will be effective, how do I know this is real?”’

The materials used in the short courses are developed from degree qualifications. This retains the quality of information but delivery is ‘shorter and punchier’.

The Leitch Review of Skills, Prosperity for all in the Global Economy – World Class Skills, showed that the UK must raise achievements at all levels, and the Government is working hard to acheive this. The OU is actively working with new National Skills Academies on ways to deliver training (see box below). ‘This is a national initiative that requires organisations to apply themselves to achieve the rise that we believe needs to happen,’ says Elvin.

Hitting the spot

Specialist training related to materials is also available. For example, Smithers Rapra, UK, provides short courses on plastics and elastomeric materials technology, processing and applications to support technical professionals in manufacturing, from product design to production and testing.

Gill Tunnicliffe, Business Manager for Training at Smithers Rapra, says, ‘The benefits of a greater understanding of polymeric materials can be seen in more efficient product manufacturing, improved design and materials selection, optimal processing and better quality control – which results in improved productivity and more competent employees who are better able to adapt to new technologies’.

Tunnicliffe notes that despite long working hours put in by UK workers as a whole, we still lag behind the USA and other G7 countries in terms of productivity. ‘Shortage of skills is recognised as a major contributory factor. It has been estimated that at least one-fifth of the productivity gap with France and Germany can be attributed to the UK’s relatively poor skills.’

A problem identified by Tunnicliffe is that people wish to maintain their CPD but find that opportunities to do so are restricted by lack of time and limited training budgets. She says, ‘Time spent out of the workplace is a real issue. In an economic downturn this becomes even more apparent as cutbacks on recruitment and redundancies reduce the workforce to minimal levels, making it increasingly difficult to spare people to attend courses’.

Over to you

For these reasons it is difficult for people to find the time to maintain their CPD. ‘Many find that they must sacrifice some of their own time. We must all take some responsibility for our learning to improve our skills and competences,’ notes Tunnicliffe.

Nowadays, more providers are introducing ‘blended learning’ which combines both face-to-face training and electronic technology to allow people to access programmes remotely, and enable full- or part-time workers to complete flexible courses/modules in an achievable time frame. Smithers Rapra has collaborated with The University of Wolverhampton’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment to offer a Postgraduate Certificate in Polymer Engineering using this approach.

The courses that feed into the Certificate can still be taken as standalone courses and their short duration (usually two days) and pragmatic content means that they are still proving very attractive to time-pressured people, while also providing a pathway to a formal qualification for those who wish to undertake a more advanced learning programme.

Tunnicliffe explains that the provision of materials science-based courses at undergraduate level has been substantially reduced. This is compounded by the trend of recruiting managers and professionals from across industry sectors, meaning that they may have limited materials experience. ‘This is where Smithers Rapra courses have traditionally proved valuable as they provide [teaching] on materials and processing technologies that are neither too academic nor completely from the perspective of the machine operator or process technician.’

Referring to current skills shortages and future requirements, Tunnicliffe says, ‘Much of the Government generated support and effort has been directed through the Sector Skills Councils towards raising basic skills to Level 2 (equivalent to five GCSEs at grade A-C) or operational level. It is now recognised that along with this there must be investment in Levels 3 and 4 to increase skills acrossindustry to intermediate level and beyond if we are to defeat the perennial skills shortage gap’.

Further information: The Open University and Smither Rapra