Forward-looking Scottish companies have long recognised the benefits of work-based qualifications supported by college study. But with an increasing need for flexibility today's service-based industries continue to use colleges and universities to back up their training requirements. Institutions that have built in relevance and flexibility to their courses are most likely to attract company money.
Ian Macfarlane is customer service manager with CR Smith, a double-glazing company in Dunfermline. Having no aspirations to go to university and anxious to earn some money, he joined the company straight from school, working as an office junior. Part of the contract with his employer involved taking an HNC in business studies, and with seven other "new starts" Mr Macfarlane took day-release classes at Fife College in Kirkcaldy.
With the experience of the HNC behind him, he took on a new role in sales support administration at the company's base in Glasgow. Following further study for an HNC in management at Lauder College in Dunfermline, he progressed to assistant manager and eventually manager of the administration department, a promotion which again coincided with further study, this time for a diploma in management and then master of business administration at Napier University.
Mr Macfarlane said: "I saw the difference between a diploma and an MBA as being significant and I thought that for the sake of an extra year I would be as well taking advantage of the opportunity. CR Smith has always been supportive both financially and in terms of time to do the job and to study. While the company expects a lot from you, it gives a lot in return."
His thesis focuses on the cost of quality, particularly pertinent to the company in terms of customer satisfaction, manufacturing quality and overall service. "I think it is important where young people have chosen not to go to university that there are benefits in studying, in earning money and learning at the same time. I don't think I would have completed my MBA at the age I have done had I not been working at the time," Mr Macfarlane said.
Nineteen-year-ol d Jillian Blain has stepped on to the first rung of her career ladder. She is the first person in Scotland to complete a Skillseekers Modern Apprentice ship in catering and hospitality, while working as a restaurant supervisor at Rusacks Hotel in St Andrews. Integral to her achievement is reaching a level 3 Scottish Vocational Qualification, but her employers regard the broad range of knowledge and experience she has gained as valuable in terms of numeracy, communication and team working.
"Staff training is vitally important within the catering and hospitality industry, and our employees' ability to cater to guests' needs is a priority," Norma Pacholek, operations director at Rusacks Hotel, said. "Fast-Trac, which funded Jillian's training, is helping us maintain our commitment to quality training through industry-back ed qualifications. Jillian's achievement sets a precedent and we are delighted for her."
It is no surprise that some of the strongest advocates of education and training are in manufacturing. The Lanarkshire-based Stiell Group employs more than 700 people and takes on about 35 apprentices every year.
The recently retired chairman spent 42 years with the company, starting as an apprentice, as did the present chief executive. Des Barratt, the deputy managing director, says: "I started as an apprentice with E J Stiell in 1964 and after serving a five-year apprenticeship I managed to get on to the four-year junior engineering programme, serving time in the estimating department, the surveying and commercial departments as well as spending time on engineering contracts and on the procurement and planning side of the business."
He wanted to widen his expertise and was sponsored by the company to attend a variety of classes at day school and night school to learn about fundamental electrical design. Following a management buy-out in 1986, he became an estimating design director and then chief estimator. Around that time he had also embarked on a part-time diploma in management studies at Glasgow College (now Caledonian University) followed by an MBA at Glasgow University.
"I am still involved in the engineering side so I keep up my knowledge by going to various workshops and seminars and I keep up my management development by attending as many seminars as possible on new management techniques," he says. "It is a continual learning process. "
Des Barratt's story is remarkably common at the Stiell Group. Ian Smith, a design manager, has achieved a BSc and an MSc at Paisley University, both sponsored by the company. Design engineer Derek McNeil started out as an electrical craft apprentice and after the second stage of his apprenticesh ip he was given the opportunity to study for an HNC in electronics at Stow College.
After his apprenticeship he became a junior engineer and was sent on an HNC business studies course at Napier University. He is now doing a part-time BEng degree at Glasgow Caledonian.
They say that a company is only as good as its people. If initiatives such as Scottish Enterprise's Year of Learning are to be successful in raising the country's skill base to a level enjoyed in other countries, there have to be many more examples of commitment and hard work, together with relevant courses in further and higher education.