On visits to companies, managing directors are invariably button-holed and entreated to sign up for the government-backed 'Investors in People' standard.
Mrs Shephard sees the National Training Awards and the rigorous 'IiP' quality mark as a central part of her strategy to make business people 'think training'. The Secretary of State will shortly announce the establishment of a new employer-led group to push the IiP standard up the business agenda. Companies have to show a high degree of commitment to developing their employees to qualify.
Mrs Shephard believes the awards enable the Government to demonstrate that despite the recession employers still regard training as important. It also gives ministers the opportunity to show that investment in the skills of the workforce has an impact on the 'bottom line'. One company has doubled its turnover since developing a coherent approach to training and another has saved nearly pounds 1m, Mrs Shephard points out.
'The awards are becoming widely known. Times are difficult for companies so to have such a positive message about the achievements of business is very heartening, especially as it will have a long-term beneficial effect on the economy,' she says.
The number of entrants was slightly down on last year, largely because of the recession, but Mrs Shephard argues that the provision of training has been largely unaffected by the economic downturn. Not only does proper training yield profits, it also boosts the morale of employees because they feel valued as individuals, she says.
'People in professional jobs are perhaps used to a strong element of job satisfaction, while those in manual jobs are perhaps not quite so used to it. Involving the whole organisation in training enhances everyone's quality of life.'
The Secretary of State is about to mount a major campaign to boost the IiP programme. At the moment 146 companies have achieved the standard, 1,600 companies have signed up and 3,000 have declared an interest. The Government's target is to see 6,000 companies sporting the IiP logo. Of the 146 successful companies, 73 of them employ fewer than 200 people, so the standard is not aimed only at larger companies. Eight of the award-winners - 59 employers and 22 training providers - have fewer than 200 employees.
There is also an enormous variety among the award-winners, Mrs Shephard says. Included in the successful organisations are the Kent Messenger Group of newspapers, Dorset ambulance service and Filton comprehensive school in Bristol. 'What I like about the list of winners is that it demonstrated that organisations in any field can win an award if they put their mind to it.'
The Government sees the awards as a key opportunity to highlight the importance of IiP, which is being administered locally by employer-led Training and Enterprise Councils.
Mrs Shephard also points out that they draw attention to National Vocational Qualifications. The NVQ system is an attempt to standardise certificates awarded for different skill levels.
For example, someone holding a Level 1 NVQ will have demonstrated basic numeracy and literacy and knowledge of, say, routine office practice. Level 3 is roughly equivalent to the old apprentice certificate and Level 5 will denote a professional qualification.
Mrs Shephard points out that the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, led by Sir Bryan Nicholson, has been highly successful in drawing up the framework and it is now the Government's duty to give it a high profile. 'They've produced the product, now we've got to sell it.'
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