THE POUNDS 4 MILLION national skills academy for the food and drink manufacturing industry has at last won ministerial approval and is due to open in April.
Improve, the sector skills council behind the bid, went back to the drawing board for two months to overcome doubts about its business plan for the academy, which is expected to train 28,000 people over the next four years.
The pound;3.4m sponsorship raised still falls short of the pound;5m usually expected to be spent on starting up a skills academy. The Government intends to encourage employer investment in training by jointly funding purpose-built facilities.
The academy will be spread over five training centres, including Grimsby Institute for Further and Higher Education and Reaseheath College in Cheshire, as well as private training providers and university and industry sites across the country. Improve expects it to shore up the pound;20 billion food industry, which employs 650,000.
The sector skills council aims to make Britain the world's most productive food manufacturing country - at the moment it ranks second to Canada - but skills shortages stand in the way. Nearly one in five workers has no formal qualifications and a further 15 per cent have only basic skills. Over the next five years, about 200,000 recruits will also be needed, mostly in skilled jobs, to replace retirees.
The academy's first purpose-designed course will be in production management at NVQ levels 2 and 3. Students will choose from job specific options for meat and poultry or fish processing, bakery or general food manufacturing. Teaching will be offered through a mix of online study and practical work in colleges.
In Grimsby, at the seafood training base, backed by the food giant Young's, the course is designed to give factory workers a good understanding of the manufacturing process to help improve productivity.
Mike Dillon, the vice-principal of Grimsby Institute, said: "Currently the standard method is competence based. Someone goes to see you operate a machine. Can you do it? Yes. Tick.
"We want the students to understand why they are doing it and how it works, all the underlying principles. The workforce can become a think tank for the factory."
In Grimsby, the online component of most academy courses will dominate initially, but the institute is planning a dedicated facility for practical training and has identified a site.
Other skills academies, dedicated to fashion retail, manufacturing, construction and financial services, have already been set up and four more are in the pipeline. Employers have been invited to bid for a third wave, with the Government aiming to set up 12 by 2008.
Phil Hope, the skills minister, said: "It is vital that we continue to improve our capacity for learning by driving up standards and specialisation if we are to compete successfully in the global market."