A Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities Commission report found that fewer than a quarter of employers fully understand the NVQ system, while almost a fifth know little or nothing about it.
A survey by Mentor Enterprise and Developments Ltd and ITS into 142 companies found that only 342 are doing NVQs.
Women workers are twice as likely as men to be taking NVQs, unlike in Britain where male candidates are in the majority.
And there is a big difference in the levels taken by the two sexes. Only 14 per cent of women taking NVQs are at level 3 with none at a higher level, by contrast, 47 per cent of men are taking level 3 and 4 per cent level 4.
A separate survey of 51 regional training organisations found that almost two-thirds of the 6,600 trainees were male. This reflects the pattern in schemes run by the Training and Employment Agency. In June 1994, women made up almost half the totals in Action for Community Employment and Enterprise Ulster, but only slightly more than a third of Youth Training and Job Training Programmes and a tiny 4 per cent of trainees in training centres.
Just over two-thirds of the trainees surveyed were taking NVQs and women were ahead - 85 per cent compared with only 60 per cent of male trainees.
Almost a fifth of men, but only one woman in 10, was at level 3.
In carrying out the research the team was hampered by lack of statistics right the way down from the Government and National Council for Vocational Qualifications to the individual awarding bodies.
"Monitoring the uptake and completion rates of NVQs in terms of age, gender, occupational area and level of attainment is essential to ensuring equality of opportunity.
"Given that NVQs were introduced in 1986, it is surprising to find that such statistics are still unavailable," the report says.