Five years ago, textiles manufacturer Ashfield embarked on a training drive to boost business - starting with classes to improve communication among staff.
Most shop-floor workers at the small Leicester-based company are of Indian origin and speak Hindi, Gujarati or Punjabi. So the company, which specialises in making corporate clothing and at the time traded as Animm Textiles, introduced English classes that employees could attend after work.
As language skills improved, managing director Ayub Mahomed decided that the firm should go further by encouraging staff to undertake more training. Since 2004, 16 out of Ashfield's 26 employees have gained NVQs in performing manufacturing, with all tuition provided free under the Government's employer training pilot (ETP) scheme.
Efficiency rose by one third and staff became far more confident and willing to share ideas, according to Mahomed. "People are more aware of the environment they work in," he says. "We make sure that machines are looked after and that the information we use is correct."
When the ETPs were phased out last year to make way for Train to Gain - a new government scheme - Ashfield jumped at the opportunity to train more employees. Staff now work towards IT qualifications, while supervisors receive management training.
Like ETPs, Train to Gain is primarily aimed at small firms that are unlikely to offer training to employees. Ashfield received the kick-start it needed so that, in future, it is more likely to train staff - regardless of whether the Government foots the bill, Mahomed says . "If the platform hadn't been given to them, I don't think we would have embarked on this journey."
Figures published this week by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) show that about one in five of the 25,000 firms that took part in employer training pilots have gone on to use Train to Gain. But the majority of the 21,000 companies currently participating in Train to Gain are new to government-funded training.
The programme was launched in April and rolled out nationally in August. At present, 75,000 to 80,000 employees are undertaking training. By 2010, the LSC hopes that 500,000 learners will achieve a first full-level 2 qualification through the scheme.
Critics claimed that the ETPs were wasteful because, in some cases, the LSC funded training that employers were willing to pay for themselves. Under Train to Gain, companies receive a contribution towards level 3 qualifications and are likely to fully fund higher level courses, while the LSC continues to pay for level 2 training that ties in with government targets.
The scheme also includes a skills brokerage service that helps firms assess the skills needs of employees. David Greer, LSC director for business support, says brokers are targeted at hard-to-reach firms that have not provided substantial vocational training for staff in the past 12 months. "We are not interested in them engaging with employers that already have a good relationship with colleges or private training providers," he says.
In addition to free training, Train to Gain also gives employers the opportunity to claim wage compensation for the time staff spend away from work. The LSC hopes that firms use this to invest in further training.
Grange Interiors, based in Tyne and Wear, used some of the money it received through an ETP to set up its own training arm and open an assessment centre. A new NVQ in fitted interiors is being delivered to staff from other companies as well as its own.
Business is booming at firms such as Grange, which manufactures and installs kitchen and bathroom furniture, because of the large sums being spent by local authorities and housing associations to bring their properties up to the decent homes standard.
Chris Raffo, its social housing and training manager, says the ETP helped it to draw "a line in the sand" and establish the skills its staff already possessed and where it needed to improve. About two thirds of its 91 employees gained NVQs, ranging from performing manufacturing to driving goods vehicles.
The new NVQ means that Grange employees can fit equipment that the company supplies instead of relying on sub-contractors. "A lot of major construction companies are looking to multi-skill their kitchen fitters, so there has been a massive interest in the training we offer," says Raffo.