Continuing training system assessed

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In mid-1999, Spain's current system of continuing training for workers in employment had been operational for some six and a half years. Here, we examine its development, focusing on its joint management by the social partners and the impact that it has had on less qualified workers.

In Spain, the management of the continuing vocational training system is based on joint dialogue and consultation between the most representative employers' organisations and trade unions. Training is an issue in sectoral collective bargaining, so training and bargaining are therefore linked. At intersectoral level, a first national agreement on continuing training (Acuerdo Nacional de Formación Continua) was signed by trade union and employers' confederations in 1992 and was later endorsed by a tripartite agreement between the social partners and the government. The agreement radically overhauled the institutional, legal and financial framework of continuing training in Spain. It was followed in December 1996 by a second national agreement on continuing training, again later endorsed by a tripartite agreement, regulating the continuing training system for the four-year period from 1997 to 2000 (ES9702101F).

The body responsible for implementing and managing the national continuing training agreements is the "mixed state commission" (Comisión Mixta Estatal) which is also responsible for agreeing on proposals for the approval and funding of the training initiatives included in the agreements - company training plans, pooled plans; group plans, intersectoral plans and individual training leave. The tripartite agreement between the social partners and the government determines the hierarchical and financial structure of the system and lays down that the areas of organisation, management and distribution of funds, and implementation and justification of training are the responsibility of the social partners through the relevant joint organisations. As a development of this principle, in 1993 the signatory organisations set up the Foundation for Continuing Training (Fundaciún para la Formación Continua, FORCEM), a joint national organisation empowered to put into practice the national continuing training agreements. In addition to FORCEM, there are two other organisational structures for the joint management of the agreements - sectoral joint committees (Comisiones paritarias sectoriales) and territorial joint committees (Comisiones paritarias territoriales).

The extension of continuing training, 1993-9

In Spain there is general agreement that the development of the continuing training agreements during the initial 1993-6 period, and the first two years of the second agreement, 1997-8, has provided a major stimulus for continuing training. It has helped both to create a training culture in sectors, companies and groups of workers in which traditionally little training had been carried out, and to promote training in areas that already had a certain tradition of training. As an example of this constant growth, according to its current director general, FORCEM approved nearly 14,000 training plans during the first six and a half years of its existence. They have been carried out thanks to a total investment of over ESP 300 billion, which has allowed more than 4.5 million participants - not counting 1998 and 1999 - to receive training.

Management by FORCEM

Since FORCEM was set up, its management of the continuing training system has widely been considered positive, particularly because it has been able to deal with a continuous growth of activity through tense and permanent dialogue and consensus between the social partners. Nevertheless, some of the problems related to the management of FORCEM pointed out in an assessment of the first set of national training agreements published in 1996 are still relevant in the current debate on the Spanish model of continuing training. The problems most often mentioned are: the need for monitoring, control and justification of the activities receiving funding; the technical difficulties of an approach based on "in situ" verification of a technical and financial nature; and the need to monitor training plans as a whole, rather than only the part carried out with the FORCEM grant. It is also felt that the quality of training must be monitored more thoroughly than under the current FORCEM system, which is based exclusively on checking the documentation supplied by the applicants for funding. Indeed, there is general agreement that quality criteria must be developed to validate the continuing training funded through the agreements.

Under the second set of agreements, starting in 1997, managers and users of the system have faced a new reality: a shortage of funds. This is due to: the spectacular growth in the demand for training, as of 1996; the reforms arising from the second agreements (particularly significant for the inclusion of new groups in the system), as from 1997; and changes in the accounting criteria of FORCEM, introduced in 1996. The high demand is illustrated by the fact that, in response to the 1998 call for training plans, 5,350 applications were received, seeking total funding of over ESP 280 billion, approximately four times more than the amount available. In the present situation, the main criterion that FORCEM applies in allocating funds - ostensibly to endow the system with greater effectiveness - is to combine quality with "selectivity". This leads to political tension and to confusion among the companies and organisations that apply for funding to organise continuing training plans. The high level of bureaucratisation makes it difficult for the users to manage the plans unless they adopt the management model developed by FORCEM. Users have continually demanded greater transparency in the changing criteria of technical and financial evaluation used by FORCEM in each call for plans.

Training for unskilled workers

Another set of problems that was raised in the 1996 assessment, and that has frequently been mentioned by analysts since the Spanish continuing training system was set up, is that it is difficult for unskilled workers to receive training funded through the national agreements. There is no doubt that the peculiarities of the labour market and the production structure in Spain present major obstacles in this area. The emergence of training opportunities is linked to the spread of new technologies and of new forms of human resources management. Improving the quality of personnel and the recognition of skills is a competitive strategy that is still limited in Spain, where there is a predominance of small companies managed according to traditional paradigms with a short-term perspective that does not include continuing training. The application of new principles of human resources management tends to be limited to workers who hold the key skills in "leading companies", which as some analysts point out, apply different strategies to different groups of workers ("qualitative flexibility" for the central core and "quantitative flexibility" for the peripheral, less skilled workers).

Commentary

Analysts trend to agree that after a period of six and a half years of permanent adjustments in the management of a system for which the demand continues to increase, the structural conditions in Spain are now sufficient to allow continuing training to have a significant impact on the labour market, on the production system, and on workers and companies. Achieving the initial goals of FORCEM requires continuous concertation in the management of the system, and care must be taken to ensure that unskilled workers are also able to benefit from training (Roser Salvat Jofresa, CIREM Foundation)

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