Cornwall College has launched a radical alternative to day release where staff study to degree level without leaving the workplace.
Roger Green, 41, is one of 50 engineers pioneering the scheme devised by the college and local industry.
He has gained a higher national certificate without setting foot in college and is now working on an higher national diploma.
"Day release is dying," says Cornwall College manager Sally Freeborn. "Business here isn't out of recession, whatever anyone says. Many companies have been shedding staff rather than recruiting and they simply can't afford to let people go to college."
Robin Davis, director and general manager of Pall Redruth Industrial Hydraulics, one of the firms involved, said employees taking the Cornwall College programme "show greater understanding and communication skills. " His firm is now taking the initiative to Portsmouth, where other companies had expressed an interest.
One beneficiary is Ian Phillips, 32, of ECC International Europe, extractors of English china clay and other pigments, who won promotion from motor mechanic to engineering planner after taking an HNC.
He benefited from an initiative that evolved after a meeting of college staff and employers in Nanpean, a village dominated by ECC, one of Cornwall's key employers.
He said: "I'd been trying to find a course, but there was only day release, and I'd have had to pay for that myself - or use all my annual holiday up. That's not really possible when you've got a family."
The scheme takes engineers to HNC level in a year, with five hours a week formal teaching in the factory after work. The firm's managers help with specialist subjects while maths and science are taught by lecturers. The scheme is more expensive than day release Pounds 500 compared with Pounds 450 for normal HNC but cash came from Devon and Cornwall Training and Enterprise Council and the Further Education Funding Council.
The organisers reject criticisms that they are offering watered down qualifications. They are backed by the Engineering Council and the Business and Technology Education Council which checks standards.
The college is now looking at a similar approach for business and lower-level engineering qualifications for younger people. Sally Freeborn says: "Colleges are not going to be able to catch up with the pace of change on their own. The only way is to make links with industry to enhance our teaching and to help them with our professional skills."