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Winning with talent: Why on-the-job training is vital

Not so many years ago, European school-leavers typically went into an apprenticeship. Many never progressed beyond the shop floor or accounts. But occasionally, a talented worker could soar up the career ladder to reach senior management or beyond.

Over time, vocational training fell out of favor in many countries. The explosion of university education often turned "learning on the job" into a second-class career path compared with a shiny degree.

But recently, as governments have grown concerned about the ageing population, global competitiveness and skills shortages, the pendulum has swung back. In the UK, for example, where boosting the number of graduates was once a priority, apprenticeships are back in vogue.

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College vs. vocational training
Cliff Lloyd | Getty Images

Research suggests both avenues are necessary for creating a balanced workforce. Countries with little or no vocational training are now being urged to start. And those with long traditions exhorted to ensure their schemes meet the needs of tomorrow, not yesterday.

By the same token, much more attention is being paid to ensure universities produce graduates who fit the employment bill.

The 2014 Global Talent Competiveness Index, produced by INSEAD, Singapore's Human Capital Leadership Institute and Adecco, highlights the essential role of education to enhance countries' talent competitiveness.

In particular, the index underlines how today's talent champions score well not only in formal education, but also in other two key variables: life-long learning through a focus on vocational skills and access to growth opportunities.

An appropriately educated workforce is, of course, the crucial raw material for business. While individual companies must identify, engage and develop competitive and agile staff, their hands are tied by the basic "human capital" at their disposal.

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Research, experience and employers' feedback show there is considerable room for improvement, both in formal education and in what companies themselves can do. Much has been written about boosting teachers' pay and status, and about the urgency of encouraging the so called STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) from an early age.

But more needs to be done. There is considerable potential, for example, to shape and advance talent beyond school. Here, policymakers and employers can work with private-sector employment services providers which have the experience to know how the jobs market is developing and what it requires.

Co-operation can operate on many levels. Companies like Adecco, the world's biggest employment services group, can help businesses plug existing gaps by using their market knowledge and expertise to advise on "talent strategies" – long-term planning for developing the employable skills most relevant to business.

Moreover, the breath-taking pace of technological change has put ever-greater stress on life-long learning. Staff cannot be hired and forgotten: employers must invest in training and re-skilling mature workers, notably in the so called "e-skills". Again, employment services groups can advise and support with appropriate training schemes.

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Most important of all is the role they can play as stepping stones from education to work. Almost three quarters of an employee's development comes through direct work experience on the job.

A further 20 per cent stems from coaching by supervisors and peers, while formal training contributes around 10 per cent. So while high quality and broadly accessible formal training is important, it's direct work experience that's indispensable.

Adecco has tried to foster access to the labour market through national initiatives – particularly in countries, like Italy and France, which are suffering persistently high unemployment, especially among the young.

On a global level, the Adecco Way to WorkTM programme, launched in 2013, involves Adecco employees in more than 50 countries. Young people were offered one-month work placements in leading companies, providing the chance to learn workplace skills in a range of roles across sectors. Some 52 per cent of candidates received job offers at the end of the period.

Adecco has also joined the Nestlé Alliance for YOUth initiative, which combines private companies, European institutions and national governments in the fight against youth unemployment. On the same line, we joined the Global Apprenticeships Network, an international coalition of companies committed to greater investment in work-based training and helping to address global skills shortages.

The 2014 GTCI shows that 'winning with talent' also involves inclusion and openness, which are central components of talent competitiveness. Here too, private-sector employment companies like Adecco can serve. Given their knowledge and relationships with large employers, they can help to reduce the skills imbalance and increase the efficiency of mobility within the labor market.

Patrick De Maeseneire is chief executive of Adecco Group.