Chocolate-shake paper chase?

Liam Julian

"Welcome to McQualifications." Thus read a Financial Times headline after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that McDonald's--the burger and fries joint--will have the power to bestow upon their employees nationally recognized diplomas (see here).

What led to this? In 2004, Britain appointed businessman Sandy Leitch to draft for Her Majesty's Treasury a report assessing the nation's long-term skills needs--i.e., to evaluate the U.K.'s human capital and determine ways to make the country more globally competitive. Leitch's final report, released in late 2006, offered both a gloomy picture of the skills of Britain's workforce and goals for bettering them. How to act on the recommendations has since become quite a big deal, and quite controversial.

Which is why Brown this week told a London conference, "A generation ago a British prime minister had to worry about the global arms race. Today a British prime minister has to worry about the global skills race." As part of the "global skills race," he noted, three employers (Network Rail, Flybe, and McDonald's) will heretofore be allowed to award nationally accredited qualifications to their employees.

All of which sounds fine until you actually think about what's going on here: the British government is conflating its nation's skills level with its credential level. Allowing McDonald's to develop and award diplomas that will supposedly be the equivalent of GCSE's and A-levels (academic designations) seems rather odd.

First, one wonders whether any of these new qualifications will actually matter to employers outside the golden arches. Author Andrew O'Hagan doubts it. He writes in the Daily Telegraph that such flimsy degrees will hinder rather than help those seeking jobs, as employers ask, "Has he passed any exams or does he just have one of those Mickey Mouse passes from McDonald's?" O'Hagan continues: "As with so many attitudes to social welfare, what is being trumpeted as an increase in choice and opportunity is actually an invitation to participate in a two-tier system." Such a system discriminates between those who have a university degree--which is generally thought to mean something--and those who have from sundry places other degrees, any one of which might mean something or might not.

Second, flooding the market with more paper qualifications won't do much to increase a workforce's actual skills and productivity because simply claiming a worker is skilled doesn't make it so. The government may assume that more workers will undergo supplemental training if they receive palpable credit for it. Such a theory has lots of problems (for example: if diplomas are a dime a dozen, the incentive to get one--and to get more training--actually decreases). And there are questions to be answered: What, exactly, will McDonald's demand of those employees enrolled in the "Basic Shift Managers' course" it's now piloting? How are skills tested and measured? And why, really, does anyone need or deserve to receive a diploma for this? (Similar questions should be asked of Network Rail and Flybe.)

Finally, if skills and job creation is what the U.K. is after, then its best bet would be to concentrate on providing training to its unskilled, welfare-supported groups. (To his credit, Brown has started moving in this direction.) But simply showering papers of dubious or yet-to-be proven worth upon those who are already employed, and believing that more diplomas equals more skills, may not do the trick.

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