More than a million training places have been lost as employers cut back during the recession, according to a survey of 80,000 businesses.
The National Employer Skills Survey found that the number of workers receiving training in their job has tumbled dramatically, with a drop of 1.2 million to 12.8 million since 2007.
The fall, which relates to training activity in 2009, is almost as large as the decline when Government funding shifted away from short adult education courses to full qualifications through Train to Gain. At that time an estimated 1.5 million places were lost over three years.
The recent drop comes despite the proportion of employers who train remaining stable at 68 per cent and the estimated amount of investment, which includes the cost of time off for training, rising by more than pound;500 million to pound;39.2 billion. However, this is not enough to keep pace with inflation and amounts to a 5 per cent real-terms cut.
Chris Humphries, chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which commissioned the survey, said: "This is a major, wide- ranging survey and one of the most robust of its type.
"It provides a valuable insight into . the unique challenges faced by employers during the height of the recession."
He insisted the messages "were not all bad", pointing to employers' positive reports on the readiness for work of students leaving school, FE or university.
Two-thirds who recruited 16-year-olds believed they were well prepared, and three-quarters said the same of 17 and 18-year-olds.
The decline in employer investment in training comes as publicly funded FE providers are increasingly expected to seek more money in fees from employers to compensate for lower public funding rates.
While the volume of training fell, colleges have managed to increase their share, working with 28 per cent of businesses which train, up 2 per cent from 2007.
Employer satisfaction levels with college training are also up slightly to 85 per cent, although this lags behind the private training sector.
The amount of training outsourced by businesses is rising at a faster rate than the college share of business, however, with a 10 per cent rise in the proportion of businesses using external providers, climbing to 72 per cent.
Employers which refuse to train give as their main reason a belief that staff are fully proficient, despite a reported rise in skills gaps overall.
The survey found relatively few complaining about issues such as the expense of courses or a lack of appropriate provision.
But John Walker, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said cost was a big factor for his members.
"The recession has proved difficult for many small businesses, with 52 per cent seeing a fall in profits in 2009," he said.
"For small firms, any training undertaken must benefit the business, but the single biggest barrier to training is the cost - both the cost of courses and the loss of staff time."
He said that as a result many employers had switched to lower-cost, informal, on-the-job training, which might not be picked up by the survey.
MIND THE GAP: FINDINGS OF THE SKILLS SURVEY
- 56 per cent of the total workforce received training in 2009, down from 63 per cent two years earlier.
- Just under a quarter of employers reduced their staffing levels in response to the recession, and one in 12 had grown.
- Employers are more likely to recruit 17 and 18-year-olds from school or college (11 per cent) than 16-year-olds straight from school (6 per cent).
- Most believe teenagers entering work are well prepared, and the most common complaints are poor attitudes and lack of life experience rather than skills.
- Businesses in the South East of England are the most positive about teenagers' work readiness, while those in the North East have the most negative views.
- There has been a rise in reported skills gaps for the first time since 2003 (19 per cent, up from 15 per cent in 2007).
- Almost one in ten employers reporting skills gaps had done nothing to resolve them.
- Nearly seven out of ten employers believe they will need to do some training over the next 12 months.