Side Order of School

McDonald's is one of the three companies the British government has authorized to grant school credits for work done in training programs.
McDonald's is one of the three companies the British government has authorized to grant school credits for work done in training programs. (By Matt Dunham -- Associated Press)
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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

LONDON, Jan. 28 -- They're already calling them McDiplomas.

The British government announced Monday that McDonald's, an airline and a rail company will be the first private companies authorized to give nationally recognized school credits for work completed in their employee training programs.

McDonald's, which has more than 1,000 outlets in the United Kingdom, will offer a "basic shift managers" course that covers the essentials of running a restaurant, from marketing to customer service. Trainees who complete the course would earn credits toward the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown enthusiastically praised the program, along with related plans to expand the number of apprenticeships for young people. Addressing a conference of business leaders Monday, he spoke of historical importance for the British economy: "A generation ago, a British prime minister had to worry about the global arms race," he said. "Today a British prime minister has to worry about the global skills race."

He added: "The biggest barrier to Britain's success in the jobs of the future: a skills deficit particularly amongst the low paid."

But elsewhere the announcement encountered skepticism. Sally Hunt of the University and College Union, a labor union that represents academic and administrative staff, said that while she understands the benefits of on-the-job training, "We would have concerns about qualifications that are very narrow and specific to one organization, like McDonalds.

"Just last week, a report revealed that some universities have concerns" over new types of diplomas being offered, Hunt said. "We are unsure whether those institutions would be clamoring to accept students with McQualifications."

Britain's employers have complained for years that while top schools here turn out plenty of high-level executive candidates, the education system has far less success in teaching workers how to run the day-to-day business of a body shop or a burger joint.

Companies are forced to spend billions of dollars training new hires for low-skilled jobs and mid-level management positions.

John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry, a major employers association, said giving academic credit for workplace training was a "significant milestone" that would change educational degrees to "better reflect the skills and competencies employers and employees need."

Ivan Titelbaum, 64, who was eating a cheeseburger and fries in a north London McDonald's Monday, said the new program made good sense because it teaches many workers what they need to know, even things as simple as showing up for work on time or cooking fries. "It's not rocket science or brain surgery," he said.

McDonald's, which has 67,000 employees in Britain, issued a statement calling the program a "radical shake-up of training and a pioneering move for British business."

"Our employees tell us they want the chance to do more formal learning, and we're responding to that," said Senior Vice President David Fairhurst. "From this January, we are proud to be piloting our own externally recognized qualifications for our management training."

British universities will still have to decide whether to recognize credits earned in the new system.

Along with McDonald's, Flybe, a regional airline, and Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain's railroad infrastructure, have won permission to grant academic credits for their apprenticeship training programs.

Network Rail officials have said their training program would include courses in track engineering and safety, while the airline said it would teach skills needed by such professionals as airline mechanics and flight attendants.

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