But learning providers claim red tape delays funding. Joseph Lee reports
The Government is claiming success for its free training programme for employers after attracting thousands of new businesses.
Since April, more than 22,000 people from 6,000 companies have joined free GCSE-level courses, with 61 per cent of these coming from firms with no history of training.
Train to Gain, as the pound;1 billion flagship programme is called, is expected to help 50,000 businesses and 350,000 staff each year. An estimated one million businesses offer no training at present.
But training providers say the launch has not been without hitches. Many companies that won contracts are still waiting to finalise details and sign them.
Members of the Association of Learning Providers who won contracts in several regions are still waiting for the Learning and Skills Council to complete financial checks.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the association, said: "Providers are facing real problems, especially where they have started recruiting staff in response to being told in July that they had been successful, often in many parts of the country. Any bottlenecks must get cleared immediately if providers can deliver what they have successfully tendered for."
The LSC said any delays would not jeopardise the programme. David Greer, director of skills at the funding body, said: "All the skills brokerage services are in place. Some providers are working to a letter of intent while we finalise contractual arrangements.
"The important thing is that employers are already working with independent skills brokers."
Under the Train to Gain programme, employers will be contacted by one of 450 skills brokers for a free assessment of their training needs, along with help with finding the right provider. Brokers are subject to regular monitoring by the LSC.
Employers will be offered free training, at a time and place of their choice, to bring low-skilled staff up to a first level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification. There is also support for higher qualifications, although these are not fully subsidised.
Small businesses with fewer than 50 staff, the least likely to offer training, will be able to get wage compensation for the time employees spend away from work.
Mr Greer said the brokerage service, which has been criticised as wasteful by training firms and colleges, was introduced at the request of employers.
Nine out of 10 are satisfied with the service so far, according to an LSC survey, while seven out of ten said they are "delighted".
The Train to Gain contracts have been shared out among private trainers and colleges, and in some cases they have joined together to bid. A two-year, pound;3.2m contract was won by a consortium of four FE colleges and two private training companies in Cumbria. They will provide 2,000 level 2 places and 430 at level 3 (A-level equivalent). It is estimated 100,000 people in the county do not have level 2 qualifications, one in five of the population.
"It's a real opportunity for the sector to show new employers the high-quality service that many colleges deliver," Mr Greer said.
Just 18 per cent of businesses use the training facilities in colleges, although the feedback from those that do is positive.
Robert Heath Heating, in Surrey, is one of the companies attracted to the free scheme. Its business manager, Robert Boultwood, said the firm had previously trained its engineers, but not the backroom and customer service staff.
He had not approached the local college because the company needed a comprehensive assessment of its training needs first, which the brokerage service provided, he said.
"One particular member of staff would not have agreed to go back to college. But because they came in and talked to him, and because it's only two hours a week and a bit of study at home, he's doing a customer services NVQ," he said Phil Hope, the skills minister, said he had visited a Coventry courier firm, where business increased sharply after the couriers were given customer service training. He said. "I hope the scheme will boost demand because our competitors in Germany, France and the USA are all investing heavily in training."