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Training pilot flies flag for business

Governments can often be accused of not consulting the right people when designing new training initiatives for business. But recently the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills have clearly been listening.

The National Employer Training Programme will form a key part of next week's skills white paper. The programme aims to encourage firms to offer staff time off to train and gain vocational qualifications. With up to 100 per cent of training costs reimbursed, companies get compensation for wages. Students and employers are entitled to free guidance.

In South Yorkshire, the agency A4e has been managing one of the pilots. The local Learning and Skills Council deserves credit for a new approach in sub-contracting management of the scheme. More than 1,200 local companies have taken part. Our pilot, train2gain, has been one of the most successful in the country in getting companies to sign up.

This is because of a strong partnership including training suppliers, A4e, the LSC, regional development agency and the various brokers and industry support groups. Uniquely, A4e is accountable to all partners and the LSC - and critically to the employer.

At a recent meeting with Treasury officials to discuss how our experiences could aid design of the national programme, we had a clear message: keep it simple. Full support for individuals up to a level 2 qualification should continue, we said. We urged policy developers not to complicate things by varying the offer by business sector and geography, or by allowing additional level 3 training in certain circumstances. Simplicity and clarity for employers, please.

There has been compensation for the extra wages companies must pay. But, while this subsidy is attractive to the smaller firm, we believe the programme can thrive without it. Employers recognise the benefits without the incentive of wage replacement. There is a marked change in businesses correlating better financial and productivity gains to their investment in staff development and training.

Another key plus from the South Yorkshire pilot is the effective balancing of supply. Employers have control of the "purchasing decision" - what training they want and from whom. Colleges and other providers have developed services to meet demand. New suppliers have come into the market, stimulating effective competition to fill gaps. A4e has procured the training services of some 200 suppliers when the local LSC only has 60 on its approved list.

Our objective is to "join up" workforce development and business support enabling employers to access a broad platform of support that assists their business performance. A4e has its own direct sales team - including a contact centre - who sell a bespoke workforce development.

As a result, there has been significant improvement in the achievement of level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications and basic skills among staff in South Yorkshire firms. This is a direct result of the ETP. Around 10,000 employees are benefiting from the training, with more than 80 per cent successfully qualifying.

Businesses which support workforce development see improved competitiveness, growth opportunities and opportunities for further support for training. Equally, suppliers see the benefits of developing new ways of working, new products and new markets for their products in delivering responsive, relevant, employer-based training.

The Government is right. Businesses cannot hope to compete with their counterparts in a global economy by simply keeping down wage costs. A better-skilled workforce is the answer and the NETP offers the country a de facto training policy for the over-19s. We have a responsibility and opportunity to make the programme and national roll out successful. To do this, it must not be made too complicated.

The programme provides value for money for the taxpayer. This new approach to encouraging and paying for workforce development can be used more widely, not just in advancing the Government's skills strategy but across the whole agenda of social change - welfare to work, social inclusion, financial exclusion, business support and regeneration.

Mark Lovell is group chief executive officer of A4eEmail:

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