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Carving out a niche

Skilled carpenter Agim Malaj has particular reason to be grateful to Torfaen Training. He is a Kosovo Albanian who escaped, aged 16, from his war-torn country with his younger brother and stumbled out of a lorry somewhere in Gwent. The brothers had lost everything and spoke almost no English.

Agim, above, joined the training provider in July 2001, determined to find a trade. After work experience, he opted to study carpentry. Five years later, he speaks fluent English, has been named Master Builders Federation Apprentice of the Year for Wales, and was commended in the UK awards this month.

Torfaen Training, which provides all the Government-sponsored training programmes in the area for people of 16 and older, has been making fast progress over the same period. In 2000, with only 150 learners, poor completion rates and a growing deficit, it was declared a failing organisation by Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate.

Anne Davies, above, former national training officer and experienced trouble-shooter with failing organisations, was called in. Starting in July 2001, she faced an Estyn reinspection in November. The urgent needs were more trainees and more income. She hired a recruitment officer to go round careers offices, contacted local employers to drum up work.

Did she have to fire staff?She smiles, charming but steely: "I brought staff round to my way of working," she says. "Some of them couldn't accept that."

This involved making each member of staff responsible for raising part of the budget. So the organisation now has "pretty healthy finances" and increased profits from pound;70,000 to pound;130,000 last year. Today, there are 450 learners working with more than 200 local employers, while the number of staff has risen from 28 to 33.

Of the eight occupational areas on offer, the biggest demand is for business administration and IT, followed by engineering and construction.

Learners often start with poor basic skills. "About half of those starting the 13-week preparatory training have skills below level 1, and some have quite good GCSEs," she remarks .

Like its star trainee, it has had national recognition. It was named Welsh Training Provider of the Year in 2004, beating 200 other organisations.

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