Bridge the skills gap and reap the rewards

Training schemes can boost staff motivation, loyalty - and profits. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online

Like many in the construction business, Gordon Harris had a simple approach to training: he organised it for his workers if clients demanded it. If they wanted his firm - Advanced Roofing and Flooring Ltd of Ilkeston, Derbyshire - to be able to fit a certain type of roofing system, he would set up a course.

Like many in the construction business, Gordon Harris had a simple approach to training: he organised it for his workers if clients demanded it. If they wanted his firm - Advanced Roofing and Flooring Ltd of Ilkeston, Derbyshire - to be able to fit a certain type of roofing system, he would set up a course.

Now, however, he is a convert to a longer-sighted method. Thanks to a government-funded scheme, 14 of his specialist roof-laying employees have been been through a programme designed to convert their practical experience into a recognised qualification. And Harris is so impressed with the results that he has put the office staff, including himself, through a similar programme and is committed to other training initiatives.

"The guys really appreciate it because their qualification increases their self-esteem," he says, adding that the company has benefited because the course has also encouraged a "team ethic".

His words will be music to the ears of David Greer, national project manager for the Employer Training Pilots, under which Advanced Roofing's training was organised. The pilots, known as ETPs, have been developed by the Learning and Skills Council, the government body responsible for funding and planning education and training outside university for those over 16, in association with the Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury.

Introduced in September 2002, the programme received a boost in last month's Budget, when the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced an extension at a cost of £190m. As a result, businesses in a third of England can now obtain free training designed to address the nation's "skills gap". Although businesses of all sizes can apply for the scheme, it is primarily aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, and 90 per cent of the nearly 8,000 employers who had taken part by the time the Chancellor announced the extension last month fall into that category. More than 70 per cent have fewer than 50 employees.

This focus is a response to the growing realisation - much mentioned in politicians' speeches - that SMEs form the "engine room of the economy" and that it is therefore vital that training initiatives are targeted at them.

In the past, though, reaching such businesses has proved difficult. Even employers committed to training were put off by the practical issues involved with getting their employees to training centres, by the fact that losing a few employees on courses is proportionately more serious for a small business than it is for a larger one, and by doubts about the relevance of such training. In addition, there have traditionally been concerns that training employees only makes them more attractive to rivals or bigger concerns.

Greer believes that the success of the ETPs is attributable to the fact that these criticisms have been addressed. "Right from the off," he says, the programme has adopted an approach whereby employers define the work areas in which they want their employees trained. This in itself is a contrast with past practice, under which training companies and colleges typically decided what they felt able to teach and then expected the employers to sign up. But the pilots go further by organising skills assessments in the chosen work areas and then their teams - rather than the employers - seek the training organisation best suited to providing that training.

Such an organisation may be a private company or it may be a college, but either way it will be vetted beforehand and it will be required to be as flexible as possible in providing the training, with as much as possible done on site.

The idea, explains Greer, is to ensure there is "as little disruption to the working of the business as possible". And it is this, he feels, that is responsible for the 90 per cent satisfaction rates among employers and employees alike.

It is certainly part of the appeal to Advanced Roofing's Harris. "It worked perfectly for us," he says, adding: "From the point of view of the technicians, if I'd said I was taking them off-site they wouldn't have done it. Because the training was designed with the people who need it in mind, it worked."

When he followed up the technicians' programme with one for the office workers, the same principle applied. "The college came out to us and sat with us at our desks. It really worked, it enabled everybody in the company to keep working. I'm 100 per cent in favour," he says.

Perhaps even more encouraging for Greer, Advanced Roofing, which was set up 16 years ago and employs 27 people, is clearly committed to training now. Being involved with the pilot put Harris in touch with providers of management and information and communications technology training, while seeing the benefits of training has, he says, "set something rolling in the company that I believe would be unstoppable".

Another part of the appeal of the scheme is the fact that health and safety regulations and other requirements increasingly apply to small companies as much as to their larger rivals, despite the work of such bodies as the Better Regulation Task Force and the Small Business Council.

Forthcoming legislation was certainly a spur for Muhammad Shabir Mughal at the Spicy Hut curry restaurant in Rusholme, Manchester to sign up with his local ETP. Four employees, including himself, are currently going through the programme, not least because, says Mughal, regulations being introduced next year will require each restaurant to have at least one employee with basic food hygiene qualifications. "When the time comes, we'll be ready," he says.

The training is already paying off. With the proprietor having been through a basic food hygiene course, the restaurant last year entered the Manchester curry chef competition - and won, largely due to gaining the highest marks in the hygiene section. It came third in the whole of the North-west, again gaining top marks in hygiene and leading Mughal to conclude that if he and his team worked on presentation - as they are now doing - the restaurant might do even better.

This belief among the companies signing up for the scheme that they are actually benefiting while helping their employees attain National Vocational Qualifications and other qualifications is down to the ETPs' commitment to deliver to employers high-quality training and expertise in spotting skills gaps.

Having seen the gains, companies are beginning to reverse their old view of investment in training as wasted money. Instead, in the words of Advanced Roofing's Gordon Harris, it helps employees become more engaged in the business and so more, rather than less, loyal.

Greer says there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that employees become less inclined to leave and less prone to absenteeism after going through one of the courses. He suggests it is because they feel valued by the employer's decision to invest in them.

Greer is, of course, aware that some of the positive response from employers at least can be put down to the fact that they have not had to pay for any of the training. Indeed, in certain circumstances they not only do not have to pay but also receive an incentive in terms of compensation for hours of work lost by an employee that can exceed the cost to them. It is, he says, all part of the ongoing evaluation process.

The results will be used to determine the degree of support that is felt to be necessary to encourage a practice that, after all, is of benefit not just to individual companies and employees, but also to the nation as a whole.

No wonder Mr Brown is watching events closely and is reportedly keen to see the scheme expand further.

'Attendance was not an issue. When I go back, I make decisions in a different way'

It is not only employees of smaller businesses that prove resistant to training; their employers can be hard to convince, too.

Lack of time is the most obvious reason. But difficulty in finding something suited to their needs is perhaps as important.

So Roffey Park Management Institute, a renowned provider of management training to large organisations, is understandably pleased to have won an enthusiastic response from its first attempt to offer something for small and medium-sized companies.

The programme just coming to an end at the Sussex centre was organised through Sussex Enterprise, which serves as the Business Link for the area. The organisation's Helena Freeman says she deliberately - if a little controversially - decided to use the public money available to subsidise the initiative to provide some in-depth training for a few organisations, rather than a shallow, general overview for many more of the region's growing businesses.

Taking as a starting point government research indicating that the country's low levels of productivity could be attributed to a lack of leadership skills, she and Roffey developed a 12-month programme that centred on three full-day conferences interspersed with workshops and "learning sets" based on businesses' local areas in order to minimise disruption and maximise participation.

Unlike those involved in the Employer Training Pilots, managers signing up had to pay for the privilege - a subsidised £800-plus. So the significance of their enthusiasm is not to be underestimated.

The 63 participants found the formal conferences interesting or useful in varying degrees. But most seemed to value the workshops and learning set sessions - supporting Freeman's view that people running small or medium-sized businesses were worse off than their counterparts in larger corporations because they typically did not have other executives with whom to share their troubles or ideas.

For example, Iris Buckley, of a 10-strong design consultancy in Lewes, says: "One of the biggest benefits was the sharing of problems, realising that you've all got the same problems."

Ken Hooker, who runs a packaging firm, adds: "You tend to think everybody else is doing it right. It's quite good to come here and reinforce the fact that you're not doing anything so badly wrong."

It might sound as if the programme amounted to little more than a networking event. But both those taking part and the organisers are keen to stress that there is a harder edge to it than that. Diane Moody, a Roffey Park tutor, points out that the learning sets are designed to help those attending translate their learning into practice.

And more than one participant is able to point to tangible benefits that quickly followed attendance of the programme, while Geoff Blackham, technology director with SEOS, a flight simulation developer based in Burgess Hill, goes even further.

"Attendance has not been an issue," he says. "I have looked forward to it because it allows you to drag your mind out of the day to day. When I go back, I immediately make decisions differently."