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'We want the cream'

Marks Spencer is not only famous for its underwear - it's also a byword for quality training which has been praised by ministers and businesses.

The group currently has 450 trainee store managers - a mix of A-level and degree candidates mostly aged between 18 and 21. This is complemented by a thriving national vocational qualification programme which trains store assistants to NVQ level 2.

Whether shopfloor or management material, you are likely to receive in-house training. Marks Spencer currently uses very few private training providers or colleges to supplement its home-grown expertise.

Ed Williams, head of training and development, says: "Half our 285 stores are designated training establishments where the management team and supervisors are regarded as having good training skills."

Management trainees move around branches for a year which includes a two-week placement at one of the company's training centres, NVQs are trained on-the-job.

The store is committed to pushing NVQs. Of 32,000 permanent sales staff, the aim is to train 24,500 by the year 2000. More than 4,500 have qualified - proof that the company is well into its stride. Demand for training often exceeds the individual store's capacity to assess and monitor individuals through NVQ programmes. At the store's largest branch, Marble Arch in London's West End, 75 out of the 1,000 staff are doing NVQ training.

The company has a hefty, if undisclosed, training budget.Mr Williams says: "It's easily on a par with any blue-chip company you can name, and it's of a standard the Government might expect."

NVQ manager Gordon Dunn says: "We see vocational training as a joint responsibility of the Government and industry to enable the United Kingdom to compete on a world stage. And we look to the Government to sustain present levels of funding."

But how much longer can the group expect the support it needs? TEC funding supports the group's NVQ workplace assessor training - a training and development NVQ for store supervisors to the industry training body's approved standard.

Government funding also comes with an Investors in People programme which the group has successfully piloted in two regions and will be introducing throughout its business in the coming year. The group is also looking to develop an NVQ level 4 and 5 for its management trainees.

And as the company refines and upgrades its training policy, new opportunities for franchise partnerships with colleges loom. Mr Dunn says: "Franchising is something we're looking at."

Training and staff development are becoming ever more important to attracting, retaining and motivating good staff.

Mr Williams says: "Concern that people might leave you is no reason for not training. Our experience is that with training our staff retention is high. Training is a motivational tool - it helps us develop our workforce and helps individuals achieve their potential.

"The pot of people coming out of education may be getting bigger but the quality of the candidates remains quite low. We're always competing for staff and like every other major employer, we want the cream."

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