Welcome to the premier league
Earlier this year, Printers Direct, a firm in Manchester, decided it was time its staff updated their IT skills. So off they went to the learndirect centre in nearby Salford - one day a week for about a month - to study spreadsheets, emails and a range of computer software.
Some 25 workers at the firm, which refurbishes printers and resells them, gained the European computer driving licence qualification, a certificate recognised right across the continent.
Steve Francis, a director at Printers Direct, says he was pleased with the quality of the training. "We put some very green people in and they came out quite knowledgeable," he says. "We also put some better-skilled people in at a higher level and they came out with even greater understanding."
Market Forces, a private learning provider, has been running the learning centre in Salford for about 18 months. Last October, it became one of the first 20 centres in the country to be accredited by learndirect as a premier business centre, thus increasing its capacity to sell training programmes to employers and individuals.
Before Printers Direct staff attended the centre, Market Forces carried out a training needs analysis for them. As a result, a group of directors has enrolled for management and financial training.
Mr Francis is keen for employees to hold qualifications that demonstrate they have undergone training.
"We don't have to support our people so much in their daily tasks," he says. "They are much more autonomous. Anything that means they work smarter means we are able to work more profitably."
Premier centres - 40 have been awarded that status so far - have developed from the 2,000 learning centres run for learndirect by private trainers, FE colleges and other public sector bodies. Another 40 should be decided by the end of this year.
To attain such status, trainers must show that they offer the highest possible service to small and medium-sized enterprises and gain a new standard developed by the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative.
All but eight of the first 40 are run by private trainers.
David Nelson, manager at Salford, says his centre had the edge because it already dealt with regular enquiries from smaller firms. Even so, it had to show that it could locate potential clients. The number of small firms it is working with has doubled to 80.
Mr Nelson says it is essential to provide businesses with a speedy and efficient service. "Learndirect centres are not always set up to provide the level of support that companies expect," he says. "Employers expect everything to be done yesterday."
Market Forces' approach has not changed, he insists. But it is better placed to market its services and to provide a full training-needs analysis for employers.
Premier centres are also in a stronger position to mould together the short courses traditionally offered through learndirect, and to create qualifications.
Pablo Lloyd, learndirect's executive director, says: "The very small employer's main interest is how training is going to help the business. The medium-sized employer may look at the motivational factor if staff gain qualifications. It depends on the size of the company and the industry."
Many programmes will be delivered through ICT in the workplace, but other employees may prefer to attend a centre. The important thing is that providers are flexible.
Mr Lloyd says: "One of the major obstacles to learning in a small to medium enterprise is the rigidity of many learning providers. In a company with 50 people, nearly everybody is multi-skilling. Sometimes it is impossible to send people out for external training."
ODL Limited in Plymouth gained premier centre status in April but says it is too early to assess the new business generated among smaller firms.
Peter Lovett, the manager, is convinced that it will mean working more closely with employers rather than just individuals, its main customers since it opened just over a year ago.
Many individuals using ODL hope to refresh their skills following redundancy. As a training provider, ODL has a long history of working with employers, mainly offering generic courses.
"We are asking questions about a company's sales and marketing strategy and looking at the areas that it needs to develop," says Mr Lovett. "The beauty of learndirect is that you can do a course wherever you have an internet outlet, but we still have an extensive suite of facilities here for people who need them."