A new study - called "The Skills Monitor" by the Government's jobs and training agency for lowland Scotland - shows that 98 per cent of the 751 companies who responded consider "people investment" to be important. But this is not reflected in their spending priorities: skills is given the lowest rating compared with information technology, capital equipment and product development, and 47 per cent of businesses do not even have a training plan.
Scottish Enterprise suggests it is up to colleges and other training providers to demonstrate that investing in skills offers value for money in its own right. The agency believes it can prove that training pays off: 50 per cent of employers in the survey who had invested in the skills of their staff said they had seen improvements in product or service quality, employee motivation and customer satisfaction.
The survey report says: "Skills are clearly considered to be important, but the words of intent are not turned into planned action. This could be due to poor evaluation of the benefit of skills investment which tends to reduce its appeal when spending decisions are being taken.
"Skills is a legitimate business driver. The challenge for training providers is to demonstrate why." But employers also need to be more reflective about what they actually need, it adds.
When asked about training, 56 per cent of firms rated the provision very good or good but 58 per cent felt providers offered only average or poor value for money.
Evelyn McCann, head of skills at Scottish Enterprise, says the search must continue for more flexible patterns of training that suit the needs of businesses. The findings also suggest that "training providers need to be very conscious of the need to demonstrate that their services represent real value for money," she added.
The report says, however, that there is a "perennial problem" of businesses having no appropriate mechanism for evaluating the benefit of their investment in skills: 10 per cent of the sample did not even know whether the training their staff had undertaken was good or not, and 25 per cent said it was neither good nor bad.
But the main constraints on skills development appear to be lack of time (cited by almost 60 per cent) and lack of money (50 per cent). This, too, has lessons for training providers, according to Scottish Enterprise. Companies are looking for "innovative solutions" involving distance learning, on-site training, coaching and mentoring, rather than being forced to travel to college.
The survey showed that further education colleges constituted the main providers, 39 per cent of employers having used them against 29 per cent who opted for consultants. But companies frequently go to more than one source.
The figures also betray some confusion in employers' minds, says Jim Law of Market Research Scotland which carried out the survey. Some 17 per cent of firms said they used local enterprise companies for training, although they do not actually provide any. "There often seems to be a lack of knowledge about who is actually providing the training," Mr Law said. "As ever, it's a communication problem."