Britain launches plan to make workers technology-savvy

Britain is retooling its work force - without making it sit around in the shop. A new approach to industrial training is being launched which would keep workers up to date in the latest technologies. But it would not force employees to spend long spells outside of their jobs, as they would in conventional college courses.

Called the ''open tech,'' the scheme is managed by the Manpower Services Commission in the government's Department of Employment. People on open tech courses will study how new technologies will affect their work with the aid of ''learning packages'' that they can take home or to work.

The government has allocated (STR)20 million ($30.5 million) to get open tech courses for the development of new kinds of learning materials, such as textbooks or computer programs which people can use at home. It plans to put a further (STR)20 million into the program over the next few weeks.

In a few years, the scheme is expected to be self-financing, with employers footing the bill. It will cost between (STR)100 and (STR)200 ($150 and $300) per employee each year.

Colleges and industrial training groups will run the courses under the direction of the commission. The program follows the same principles as a correspondence course, but emphasizes the practical aspects.

Furthermore, there will be a high degree of Employment Department direction to ensure that the courses offered by the program are relevant to the strategically important sectors of British industry.

Firemen, printers, elevator makers, farm workers, aircraft engineers, electronics technicians, and builders will be the main beneficiaries of the 15 courses approved so far. Probably about 4,000 people will go through the open tech's first year of courses in 1983-84, increasing to 20,000 later in the decade.

Critics point out that with Britain's 12.4 percent unemployment rate, government funds should be spent on creating jobs, not reeducating those who already have work. The open tech plan, they say, only widens the gap between the two groups.

It may seem surprising that the scheme is being pushed through by a Conservative government whose instincts are to take a ''hands off'' approach to industry. But Conservative politicians have backed the program in response to demands that they do something to improve on Britain's dismal record in training its adult work force.

According to many observers, Britain's industrial competitors such as West Germany and Japan are much better at keeping their work forces educated in new technologies. As a result, these countries' workers are more adaptable and employers can switch more easily to new products and processes.

Also behind the government's backing for the scheme is the realization that, within an industrial work force that will probably continue to shrink, there will be an increasing need for specialists in particular areas of technology. The government argues that the only way to provide such people with the extra knowledge that they require is through some innovative method of training.

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