Soccer's positive goals
Frank Pignatelli has a simple riposte for small businesses concerned that employees will leave their company once they have been trained: "I tell them to consider not training them and then see what happens if they stay," says the chief executive of learndirect Scotland.
But he is not obliged to use that argument too often now - since smaller firms have responded positively to learndirect's initial attempt to appeal to employers as well as individual learners.
A pilot run last year attracted 200 small firms. Since the service went nationwide in February, hundreds more employers have enquired about training or asked to see a learndirect adviser.
"We were astounded," he says. "Small to medium enterprises have been characterised as not being interested in training but if you give them the opportunity they are very interested."
Learndirect Scotland wants to focus solely on employers. Since it started in October 2000 (six months after England), it has opened 408 learning centres for the public. Last year, they attracted more than 86,000 learners, one-third of them from areas of social exclusion.
"We're trying to reach people who have never really engaged in learning," says Mr Pignatelli. "That means marketing ourselves in areas where learning has a negative context."
Campaigns have included dressing a fleet of taxis in learndirect's blue and yellow livery. Scottish football clubs have been encouraged to open learning centres so that supporters can develop IT skills surrounded by images of their idols.
"Young men are a big problem because they don't want to learn," he says.
"It's partly to do with the baggage they carry and their culture. It's not seen as cool to go to college or university."
But learndirect Scotland must overcome more than just social barriers. The geography of the country means that until recently many potential learners had no access to teachers or even online learning. Most learning centres are in colleges or other public buildings, but about one-third are run by private firms. These include Telecroft 2000 on the remote Shetland island of Unst (see story, right), and IT Skills For All, based in a portable building off the M9.
A crucial difference between Scotland and England is that, north of the border, learndirect does not deliver courses. Instead, it leaves this to the country's 46 FE colleges and 23 higher education institutions, along with private trainers.
Scotland, he explains, has always worked on the basis of "consensus and partnership building". Many college principals and university vice-chancellors, for example, are on first-name terms.
Learndirect Scotland's database contains more than 70,000 courses run by 1,700 providers.
"We have maintained a position as the honest broker which refers people on to third parties," he says. "There are enough providers out there. What we need to do is stimulate demand."
Since learndirect Scotland for Business started four months ago, nearly 200 small firms have consulted a learndirect adviser to find out the best way of tackling their training needs.
IT skills are high on the list, but other skills such as communication and customer care are also in great demand.
About half of Scotland's 408 learning centres target businesses, but there are no plans to follow England's example by establishing premier business centres, though it is likely that centres will be asked to do more to help small firms that do not have enough IT equipment for staff to learn online.
Glasgow and Clyde Valley Greenspace, a small environmental trust, was referred to learndirect last year because it could not find training for specialists such as environmental biologists and landscape designers.
The trust employs only four staff, but grants money to a further 17 individuals or small firms that carry out work in Scottish towns and cities. Karen McNeill, the trust's manager, was on the point of calling in trainers from England before she found such training was on offer north of the border.
"We received a huge list of potential trainers from which we picked five," she says. "Everyone has had flexible training on a team or individual basis that was tailor-made for our people."