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Trainers find it hard to compete with college hard sell

like most training providers, Malcolm Armstrong is fighting to push the image of work-based learning. But all he sees is the hard sell of big banners and radio advertising from local colleges. It's hard to compete, and it's the same up and down the country.

"Work-based learning tends to be delivered by smaller organisations that are less visible to parents and young people," he said. "We do parents'

evenings, a guide and an open day to attract people. We've got a website, and we spend time and effort on PR, getting success stories into the paper.

We've formed a consortium with four other providers, sharing staff, resources and good practice. We're looking to build a new centre - we want to be seen as a major part of the learning sector."

But getting the message across is not easy. "Work-based learning has a low profile and is not perceived as a first choice compared with other post-16 options," said a 16-19 area inspectors' report for Sunderland in 2002.

Work-based learning has been hit by greater competition for learners as schools seem more reluctant to let students go. "Fifteen years ago we used to be invited into schools, but not now, except where there's no sixth form," said Mr Armstrong.

Work-based training's image has also declined, something employers need to get used to, says Mr Armstrong, whose firm, Access Training Ltd, trains 250 apprentices a year for 200 employers.

"A lot of employers don't realise things have changed. Only 10 per cent (of young people) are now looking for work-based learning. Employers feel they're not getting the people they want."

Inspectors criticised the service to training firms provided by Connexions in Sunderland. Mr Armstrong has the impression that even specialist careers advisers often know little about work-based training, often seen as an alternative to unemployment rather than a positive option.

And parents, he says, no longer want to see children go down the work-based route. "They get letters about child benefit and the education maintenance allowance. It encourages them to stay in education, but they don't realise they'd be better off doing a Modern Apprenticeship."

Mr Armstrong says providers must get more involved in area action plans via local LSC.s "There's going to be skills shortages all over the place," he said. "We have to try to address it ourselves."

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