Rethinking UK small employers' skills policies and the role of workplace learning


  • Thanks are due to the Department for Education and Skills for funding the research upon which this paper draws, to Julia Rouse for commenting critically on earlier drafts, and to the editor and two anonymous reviewers.

John Kitching, Senior Researcher, Small Business Research Centre, Kingston University, Kingston Hill, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, KT2 7LB. Email:


Small business employers in the UK are widely perceived as adopting a reactive, ad hoc approach to employee skill formation. Employer reliance on workplace learning is often treated, explicitly or implicitly, as evidence of such an approach. Small employers' approaches to skill creation are investigated using data from two employer samples. Three main conclusions challenging these arguments are presented. First, small employers' skills policies are highly diverse: strategic, tactical and restrictive policies are distinguished. Second, employers perceive particular benefits in enabling workplace learning; simplistic views that a reliance on workplace learning necessarily constitutes an inferior last resort for those employers unable to provide access to external training are rejected. Third, enabling workplace learning is important to strategic employers, as well as to those attaching a lower value to skills. For some employers, the workplace is the primary source of new knowledge and skills because they are unavailable elsewhere. The prevalence, diversity and significance of workplace learning in small businesses require a reappraisal of UK small employers' skills policies. The implications for research, practice and policy are discussed.