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In from the cold

The incentives are there to induce smaller employers to train staff. But will it become custom and practice? Andrew Mourant reports

It sounds too good to be true. A core of unqualified workers in small industries, long by-passed by the national drive to broaden and improve skills, are at last being helped because of an unprecedented government offer - send your staff for training and we will reimburse their wages.

About 1,800 small employers and 6,000 employees in six pilot areas have signed up. Government money, originally pound;40 million, has been increased to pound;130 million. From the autumn, a further 12 areas - as yet undecided - will benefit.

Employers are repaid the cost of releasing employees. Free or low-cost assessment, training and accreditation are given those working towards various qualifications up to NVQ level 2, including basic literacy, numeracy and English as a second language. Michael Stark, the Learning and Skills Council's assistant director of skills and workforce development, sees the project as a revolution.

"The target group has almost never been addressed before," he says.

"It isn't something for the usual suspects - for instance if you go to John Lewis, they have a tradition of staff training. We're discovering firms who aren't doing anything like that. It has always been said that employers won't train low-skilled, low-wage staff. I think what we're doing is the best training offer that has ever been made. We think the qualifications will be good for both parties and produce a fast rate of return."

The number of employees who stick with the scheme is high - Mr Stark says only 20 out of 6,000 have dropped out.

But what happens when the pilot money runs out? Wage subsidy at that level can't go on for ever.

"We've had to fit in with EU rules but we can't go on providing free wages to every employer in the land," says Mr Stark. "It could be possible to turn off the tap yet still offer support. Some might say it is a bit like a drug addict giving away free heroin so that the addict will pay for it later."

Simon McAulay, managing director of Anglo Felt, a fabric recycling firm in Rochdale, has reservations about the scheme. The free money he likes. He is keen to make his business more structured while retaining the support of his "loyal and excellent workforce". Nine of the 26 staff, whose skills would not transfer easily, have begun an NVQ 2 in manufacturing.

"We're in a business with traditional ideas," he says. "We've always spent money on training, but the Government has given us a bit of a leg up. " Mr McAulay was more impressed with a precisely targeted scheme which, he says, the pilots should draw on - Strategic Training for Apparels and Textiles (Stat).

"It was an interesting approach and a light touch of government," he says.

"We put a broad proposal together - we wanted to get manuals written on the machines so people could work them; we sent the operations manager to Cranfield on an executive development course.

"Stat is the best training initiative we've ever had - it's a shame they haven't done it again."

Michael Stark at the LSC may hope small firms grow "addicted" to the concept and other elements of the package after the wage subsidies end. But for Mr McAulay, money is crucial. He questions what difference an NVQ 2 in manufacturing will make to his business. "We regard training as important but would choose fewer people and train them more," he says. "The Government is interested in the numbers game whereas we're interested in maximising our investment in training."

Neil Crook, in textiles for 25 years, has embraced the chance to get his NVQ, despite its shortcomings. "I think there are a lot of gaps in it - I don't think it fits in with the job I'm doing," he says. "I think it's made for more recognised industries."

Yet he sees its broader value.

"Despite all my experience, I've no qualifications to show for it," he says. "When the chance of doing the NVQ came up, it took me 30 seconds to make up my mind. It will give me some recognition for all I've been doing over 25 years."

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