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Untapped benefits of business contacts

Colleges and other training bodies must improve their contacts with business if Britain is to develop a properly-trained workforce, according to new research.

A study by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education published to coincide with Adult Learners' Week, found companies willing to invest in training.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has pledged to improve the effectiveness of adult education with a White Paper on lifelong learning by the autumn. He has set up a top-level working group to promote it (as outlined on page 10). The NIACE has also set up a commission to study good practice and report back to Mr Blunkett.

But researchers found managers, particularly in small firms, knew little about the possibilities on offer and large parts of the business world had little knowledge of how useful training could be to the bottom line.

The report, Supporting Learning in the Workplace, by NIACE researcher Alastair Thompson, points to particular problems in small businesses, which make up 99 per cent of Britain's companies.

Mr Thompson wrote: "While employees of big organisations can call on training or personnel officers who are expected to know about courses, qualifications and colleges, those working in smaller businesses are likely to contact people whose main concern is to sell, to manage or to plan the delivery of production processes or services - not to know about learning.

"Even when they would like to, these managers and supervisors are unlikely to have a complete and up-to-date knowledge of education and training; what is possible, how useful it is to the individual or the business, when it can be assessed and what it costs.

"If UK plc is going to get a properly equipped workforce, then the providers of training, colleges, training and enterprise councils and other training organisations, will need to be a lot better at communications in order to let workers and companies know just what training they need and what is available.

"And businesses must come to realise that unlocking the learning power of their staff is easy, and there are plenty of examples as to how it can be done."

The survey, covering industry training organisation s and companies which had made enquiries about the European Year of Lifelong Learning last year, recommends staff to ask about training, and urges companies to respond positively.

And the report calls on managers to recognise that training not directly linked to their business can yield returns in the long run. Particularly cost-effective, it argues, is encouraging staff to study in their own time,with the company paying the fees.

Colleges and other training providers are also urged to build closer links with small businesses, with an emphasis on creating long-term relationships.

Some 87 per cent of the companies that responded had a special budget for training, 88 per cent had a manager responsible for training and 85 per cent had a written policy statement on staff development.

But, the report says, "It is reasonable to suggest that few organisations are likely to allocate more than #163;200 per head per year for learning - and actual spending is distributed unevenly throughout most organisations, with managers more likely to benefit from support"

Despite the findings, most firms said they were well informed about training and education.

And whole nearly eight out of 10 said they support staff training as part of long term plans, 74 per cent said requests from individual employees was important. "Whilst businesses might not be particularly pro-active in encouraging employees to take up education or training, all claimed to be willing to consider requests from individuals on a case-by-case basis - especially if the employee sought to show how the business might benefit from the learning."

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