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'I wish we'd had them years ago'

Employer training pilots - cheap on-site courses tailored to business needs - were hailed a success in the skills White Paper. Are they the future of workplace training? James Sturcke investigates.

JAKE Cavagin's bricklayer's fingers reach for another cigarette from his breast pocket.

"'There' or 'their'?" the 56-year-old Geordie asks. "I was Blaydon and Newburn secretary (for the construction workers' union) UCATT for eight years and never knew which one to use. Apostrophes were worse. The only thing I knew was my handwriting was bad and I was getting the grammar wrong."

After a gap of four decades, the Newcastle City Council builder returned to the classroom this year as one of the first to take advantage of Gordon Brown's new "employer training pilots" (ETPs).

Tyne and Wear was among the initial six pilot areas announced last September and got pound;5.7million from a total of pound;40m. The Chancellor's April budget doubled the number of pilots and made anotherpound;130m available for key skill and level 2 vocational training.

All employees over 19 are eligible. Firms agree courses according to their workers' needs. Training takes place during the working day, firms are compensated for lost time.

Jake says: "I chose English to improve my handwriting and spelling. Our class of 10 labourers was sent to the new Baltic Art Centre and told to write a story about it. I had four days' training. It's motivating to think they are spending money on you."

John Gibson, project co-ordinator of Newcastle council's Skills for Life scheme, says: "ETPs differ from past training schemes in that they are targeted at working adults. The council got about pound;19,000 which meant we could block-release 117 workers for a fortnight.

"The change has been incredible. In the canteen they used to talk about football and horse-racing. Now they're talking about what course they want to go on. I just wish we had them 20 years ago."

Now more than 500 employees, 10 per cent of Newcastle council's workforce, are expected to get training in the second year of the pilots.

A mile along the road Mick Longstaff, one of 125 workers at Peacock Medical Group, is taking an NVQ level 2 in manufacturing.

The 33-year-old said: "I hated school and left with no qualifications. I've worked here for 17 years and the training has made me look at things in a different way. It's also helped me with putting things down in writing - something I've always struggled with."

Peacock makes orthopaedic shoes and other equipment for people with mobility difficulties.

Tom Kelly, Peacock's quality manager, said: "The NHS is increasingly pushing for more qualified technicians. In that respect, the ETPs are helping a lot. Most of our workers already have adequate reading and writing skills." He is postive about the scheme, though feels the course could have been more challenging.

"The manufacturing NVQ is failing to stretch them as much as we would have liked - they've learned the skills already on the job - but perhaps they are benefiting in other ways.

"We will stick with the scheme. It is good value although we have yet to receive the compensation."

He is not the only one. Slow payment has been a problem for the scheme.

Firms also complain of the complexity of working out the cost for them - firms must pay on average about 15 per cent of training costs to meet European rules but do not know the exact figure until they are committed.

Nevertheless, the first eight months on Tyneside, where the ETP has seen the target of enrolling 1,000 workers exceeded by 50 per cent. More than 250 firms have taken part. A five-fold increase is expected in year two.

This has not been cheap - and, concerns about cost could be a problem in the future. The Tyneside pilot offers the most generous compensation of the original six pilot areas. Firms with fewer than 50 staff can claim 150 per cent wage compensation for up to 70 hours' training. Those with 50 to 249 workers get 120 per cent while those with more than 250 get 75 per cent.

David Greer, Learning and Skills Council national project manager, says:

"The pilots are doing exceptionally well. There are more than 2,000 employers and more than 10,000 employees signed up. We are receiving about 250 new employers and 1,500 employees every month. The drop-out rate is less than 1 per cent and that really blows my mind.

"We are very much focused on hard-to-reach firms which have little record of investing in training. About half of the firms involved so far are hard-to-reach.

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