Special Report on National Training Awards: Developing skills holds the key to success: Cutting back on training budgets to save money in the recession is short-sighted, award-winning employers tell Martin Whitfield

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THE MIDDLE of a recession has never been a good time for the expansion of training budgets. Funds are cut, schemes are dropped and many managers are preoccupied with the problems of redundancy and job loss rather than training, promotion and the acquisition of new skills.

Evidence from successful trainers that investment delivers tangible results has still not managed to filter through to many companies where training gaps exist from senior management to the shop floor.

Peter Bonfield, chairman and chief executive of ICL, the leading information technology company and a National Training Award winner with a training budget of pounds 20m, agrees that training is often one of the first savings.

'This is short-sighted. The success of a company depends directly on the quality and skills of its people. It ensures they have the skills to do their job effectively. This translates into greater organisational efficiency and continued financial success,' he says.

Managers themselves, like most workers, are aware of their own deficiencies and would welcome the opportunity to upgrade their skills. A study by the Institute of Management and the Economic and Social Research Council earlier this year revealed that half those questioned admitted they had received too little training.

Nine out of 10 managers were convinced of the need for more training and a similar number believed they would be more effective if they had received more instruction and tuition. A similar pattern is seen across the workforce, with studies showing a general recognition by staff of the necessity of learning new skills.

Such reports have led to headlines lamenting Britain's poor training record with predictions that any recovery will be hampered by the lack of skills in the workforce.

There have been signs of encouragement. Employers' organisations, including the CBI, have welcomed the fact that training has not suffered as badly in this recession as it did in the early 1980s when the country seemed to cease vocational training altogether.

The volume and quality of job-related training has increased in the past five years and more companies are aware of its value. But the absolute totals remain low, with large numbers of employed adults never receiving a day's instruction from the time they finish their induction course or basic apprenticeship.

The National Training Awards, launched in 1987, are one of a number of attempts to increase training awareness. They are aimed to reward those companies which have demonstrated the practical value of worker training and to highlight the success stories.

The message of the awards is clear: these are the firms and organisations most likely to succeed in the growing competition against companies in Europe and Japan. They will have the best hope of harnessing technological improvements and of having a workforce not frightened of change but able to use new working methods intelligently and effectively.

Begun by the Manpower Services Commission, itself superseded by the Training Agency and by Training and Enterprise Councils, the awards have remained popular with employers and employees.

They have three objectives:

To identify excellence in training development and practice.

To demonstrate the link between effective investment in training and improved business performance.

To encourage greater commitment by individuals to self-development.

The Awards are divided into three categories, two for corporate entries and a third for individuals, and the scheme has a budget of pounds 1.9m of which about half is earmarked for advertising.

The corporate categories are divided between training organised by employers for all or part of their workforce and training designed and delivered by specialist training providers.

Individual awards, only in their second year, are for those people who have shown a high level of personal commitment to training and self-development.

The number of entries has grown since the 1,143 received in the first year but the 1992 total of 1,600 is slightly down on the record 1,784 entries in 1991. Of the 81 corporate winners, 59 are employers and 22 are training providers, while 13 individuals have been given awards and a cash prize of pounds 1,000 and a pounds 500 credit to use towards further training.

Judging - by a panel of employers, training professionals and trade unions - is against national criteria, with entrants required to show how training has been developed to meet specific business needs and how they have been delivered and evaluated.

The benefits of training, not the mechanics, are to be rewarded. Entries are first considered by regional judges, which have the power to award commendations. The commendations are then forwarded to the national judging panel.

The awards do not stand in isolation. They are linked with other initiatives, such as the Investors in People standard, to enhance the value of training. Investors in People, labelled by the Department of Employment as its training 'kite mark', has led to 1,500 organisations committing themselves to advanced training and development. About 150 have achieved the standard.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, says fast-changing markets demand flexible, adaptable and competent people.

'They need to be properly informed about their jobs, skilled in doing them and committed to doing the best for their organisations and customers,' she adds.

Michelin, the tyre manufacturer and winner of six national awards including one this year at its Burnley truck and bus tyre plant, has no doubt about the value of training, which is now part of the corporate culture.

Productivity rises of more than 28 per cent, reduction in material and process costs of 15.7 per cent and a reduction of one-third in absenteeism are reasons enough.

'It is not a question of being trained. It is staying trained,' it says.

(Photograph omitted)

New Bouncers' award, page 30

Shephard interview, page 31