MORE THAN 150 employers have signed a government pledge committing them to help their staff gain skills required to compete in a globalised economy.
The companies which signed the pledge promised to support their staff in achieving level 2 qualifications and beyond and, between them, to employ 1.7 million workers.
But there are concerns that, apart from some high-profile businesses such as McDonald's and defence contractor BAE Systems, many of the employers signed up so far are part of government or the education system. Some employ only a few staff without the level 2 qualification, the equivalent of five good GCSEs.
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor and Prime Minister-in-waiting, told the assembled business leaders: "It's a measure of the importance we attach to building our skills in this country that so many of our country's biggest companies are represented today.
"I want to thank you for your commitment to what is the central test over the next few years - building a strong economy by building the skills of the country."
The pledge is voluntary and there is no mechanism of enforcement. Chris Banks, the Learning and Skills Council chairman, said that companies would have no reason to stand in the way of employees improving their skills.
All they had to provide was time off for study, he said. Funding for level 2 qualifications will be provided by the taxpayer, through the Train to Gain scheme.
Employers will also ensure that more of their in-house training leads to accredited qualifications, to demonstrate the investment they make in improving skills, Richard Lambert, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said.
Sir Digby Jones, the Govern-ment's skills envoy, said it would be crucial to make sure smaller companies took part, and he urged big companies to put pressure on their suppliers and contractors to sign up to the pledge as well.
"They will sign it if they think they will lose your order," he said, and warned companies about being complacent.
"Have you asked your security guards or your cleaning ladies lately? Don't you tell me you've outsourced them - they're your responsibility.
"The pledge is not perfect.But tell me something else that is going to make a step change like this.
"It's about using the power of employment to make a difference which will last forever. There's so much that is great about Britain and we can make it so much greater."
Among the companies which have signed the pledge is the fast-food giant McDonald's, which is keen to shake off the dead-end connotations of the McJob - even petitioning the Oxford English Dictionary to change its definition of the word.
Last year, it launched an online employee training programme funded by the LSC which has 1,480 staff studying maths and English, 1,000 of whom are expected to gain qualifications this year.
The armed forces have also signed. Two years ago, the Army was heavily criticised by the Adult Learning Inspectorate for basic skills training failures after it discovered a bomb-disposal expert who was struggling to read instructions.
But now the Army claims to have greatly improved literacy and numeracy support for its recruits, investing an extra pound;8 million in basic skills last year.
All new recruits are now required to reach entry level 3 (A-level equivalent) basic skills, while sergeants must get the equivalent of five good GCSEs.
Lieutenant Colonel Nick Maher, from the Ministry of Defence, said: "The Armed Forces are very technical now. The idea that even an infantryman doesn't need a high level of skills is outdated."