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Can we work it out this time?

For years there has been an uneasy debate on employer-provided training. If a consensus has existed at all, it is the notion that our 28-million strong workforce must do better.

Few would argue with that. The UK has a workforce that is less skilled than many of our international competitors. Depending on your viewpoint, the typical British workplace is either doing more than its fair share to improve UK productivity or employers are simply still failing to engage.

For the critics, we are trapped in a "low-skills equilibrium". This refers to an invidious culture among companies who don't train, won't train, or can't afford to train the workers.

But there is argument about what needs to be done. In particular how to tackle years of under-investment in skills that keep an individual employable and help the economy grow longterm while at the same time helping businesses to make money.

If you are generally suspicious of a state that can require firms to invest a minimum proportion of payroll in staff development - as France does - then a policy instrument such as a "training levy" is a complete anathema.

Similarly, if you believe the solution lies in direct government intervention then it is no wonder the main protagonists have gone round in circles for what seems like ages.

The results of a modest pilot programme may be about to change all that.

Employer training pilots (ETPs), devised originally by the Treasury and delivered through the Learning and Skills Council in six, then 12 areas, are about to embark on a third-year phase of operation.

They address the organisational barriers that can inhibit staff development. They may turn out to be the most radical breakthrough in employer-provided training since the industrial training boards were set up more than 35 years ago.

The experience of the pilots is forcing a re-examination of not only what encourages employers to train staff, but also the way in which the "training market" - mainly colleges and private providers - can respond more effectively to employer needs.

All pilots aim to provide a first level 2 qualification - the equivalent of an NVQ or GCSE - and feature a combination of paid time off to train and a wage subsidy or compensation for employers who release staff for training, supported by information and guidance.

More than 8,000 employers and 40,000 employees are taking part. According to the national evaluation: "ETP learners are typically female, 35-plus, work full-time in a low-skilled job in a small workplace, earning around pound;6 per hour. Three-quarters left school at or before age 16, only a third had positive experiences of education and most have no qualifications."

What marks the pilots out from previous efforts is the high completion rates among employees taking part (70 per cent). More than a fifth of firms are the "hard to reach", having had little contact with government-backed programmes in the past. Crucially, it is the employer who, with a "skills broker", identifies who needs training and how this will improve the business.

In Essex, Kent and east London, ETP is marketed as "profit from learning".

It has been a great hit among local employers who like the business-friendly language. The brokers have simplified the potential hassle of holding a government contract, and all the documentation is in plain English.

Those offering training are responding positively too, with three-quarters being undertaken on the employer's own premises. In Essex, the LSC experimented with two mobile units covering the north and south of the county, helping employees on industrial estates access a bank of computers to improve information technology skills. In Kent, where the wage compensation element of the scheme does not operate, take-up among employers has still been high because the free and flexible training attracts them.

And in east London, where the health and social-care sector is rapidly expanding, ETP is helping plug skills shortages by supplying trained and competent staff to the industry.

Tom Bewick is a skills director for the Learning and Skills Council. He writes in a personal capacity

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