THOUSANDS of Britain's most skilled workers slip into permanent redundancy when companies go bust because they lack the qualifications new employers need.
The evidence has emerged from a range of audits and employer training pilots carried out by the Learning and Skills Council, which will launch the biggest ever survey of skills next week.
Up to 70,000 employers will be quizzed in the first comprehensive inquiry into training in England, said LSC chairman Bryan Sanderson.
"This survey is highly professional, very substantial and will get us the best database available," said Mr Sanderson.
Starting this month, the survey will map out skills gaps, assess the nature and extent of training offered by employers and ask them how satisfied they are with what is currently available. The results are expected this autumn.
Such information has been collected before, but this will be the first set of data to cover the whole of England. It will be used by the nine Regional Development Agencies and 47 local LSCs to plan future education and training.
"It is a key part of our remit to match provision with skills requirements," said Mr Sanderson, who stressed that the survey by the LSC and the Department for Education and Skills would be independently researched and assessed. It will be based on 20-minute telephone interviews. After small-scale test runs, the work will be conducted by established market research companies NOP, the Bostock Marketing Group (BMG) and IFF Research. NOP conducted the LSC's first national learner satisfaction survey in 2001-02.
"The survey is partly about getting employers involved," said Mr Sanderson.
"Now that there are no jobs for life, it is important that the skills that workers carry from job to job are acknowledged. While many businesses run good training, it is rarely recognised outside their own company."
Training needs to have a generic element that is "portable", added Mr Sanderson. "It is very important there is some sort of accreditation recognised by employers," he said. "Company courses are quite easily modified to be accredited nationwide."
One of the most startling problems of skilled employers lacking credentials for new jobs came in the late 1990s when British Aerospace was in trouble.
Almost 25,000 engineering staff had been trained by the firm to the equivalent of HND, but they had few qualifications to show for it.
Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council had to carry out a crash accreditation programme in less than four months.
Small businesses in particular find it difficult to keep up with training requirements and need encouragement to get involved, either through college courses tailored to their needs or by buying in training from bigger firms which, says Mr Sanderson, "are usually willing to help". He would like to see employers involved in developing the new qualifications such as vocational GCSEs - "because they know better than anybody what's required for business success".
As well as taking part in the survey, employers can influence education and training through representation on LSCs and RDAs, and through the Sector Skills Councils. The SSCs are employer-led bodies designed to to oversee training across business or industrial sectors. They are gradually replacing the National Training Organisations.
Mr Sanderson wants to change the attitudes of workers and employers. "We've not got the idea of lifelong learning through to enough people yet - it's a cultural problem and you don't change a culture overnight," he said.