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Small equals reluctant

The scale of the challenge - how to get more small and medium-sized businesses to benefit from learndirect - was spelled out starkly in the public accounts committee report in March. The report urged training companies to work with specific sectors and employers to whet appetites.

A review on how courses can be made more suitable for business was also called for. Ufi, it concluded, needed to work with sector skills councils and the Small Business Service to extend its reach.

This is not easy territory. Big-hitting companies, with training and human resources departments, realise it's imperative to invest in staff development, but small firms can all too often let employee development slip off the agenda.

The experience of Stanley's, a family business in Birmingham's jewellery quarter, is instructive. Alison Stanley, the managing director, encouraged staff to sign up for learndirect computer courses, after a local training company called, spelling out what was on offer and how it could boost business efficiency. "It was good that they came to us and very helpful in getting people used to computers," says Ms Stanley, who employs 28 people.

"Our experience was very good," she says."It was fantastic to give people the chance to learn computer basics and more."

But, she says, her business is not using learndirect anymore, although some employees might be doing so in their own time. "The trouble is we are working flat out here. You've got to grab any contract you can at the moment."

Recently, the same training company asked if any Stanley staff would be interested in taking an NVQ in customer care. "It might well pay off for us," Ms Stanley agrees. "But, though it might well be a good idea, we can't really afford the time for it."

Convincing Britain's small businesses to make use of learndirect will not be a walkover. The strategy stands the best chance if training companies get across the message that investing in staff can boost profits and productivity.

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