Train to Gain: does it work?

Is the government's flagship skills initiative really delivering?

Some have dubbed it the best skills initiative for small businesses to come out of the government. But is it proving to be a success?

W hat’s not to like about the government’s flagship training initiative, Train to Gain? Assessments are free, as is some of the training, much of which is tailored to your needs. And businesses with fewer than 50 staff even get help with wage costs while their staff are being trained. However, many feel that too often the government has grabbed headlines without delivering and the uptake levels are not all they should be.

Launched in August 2006, to address low UK skill levels and employers’ failure to engage with training in any structured or ongoing way, Train to Gain has a network of around 450 self-employed skills brokers. They meet employers, assess training needs and then design bespoke training plans.

Helping staff development

Following that the training is either funded by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), or financed by employers themselves.

Jaine Clarke, director of skills for employers at the LSC, says: “The government’s priority at the moment is on addressing those skills that are really needed for individuals to progress to a higher level, such as literacy, numeracy, and the first platform of vocational qualifications (Level 2, the equivalent of five GCSEs grades A to C).” All the business has to do is release the individual to train during work time.

This is being supported by major investment. Last year £250m was spent on the scheme, mainly on training individuals, but also paying for the skills brokerage service and ongoing development work. This year a further £450m is being invested and from 2010/11 this will rise to £1bn a year, according to Clarke.

The government is also funding more Level 3 qualifications (A-level equivalent), and a leadership and management programme for small business leaders, with the budget for the latter rising from £4m last year to £30m this year. Clarke insists that the scheme has been well received for its flexibility, adding: “A broker will introduce a specialist adviser who will sit down with the director and look at what their personal development plan should look like and what sort of training needs to take place, be it a course or a programme or some coaching or mentoring. Altogether we invest about £1,500 per person into that.”

Clarke says that over 75% of participating senior managers go on to train and invest in their workforce, and around 96% say that it has made a positive difference.

Getting involved

If your business fancies itself as a training provider, there’s a chance you could actually contribute to Train to Gain. Training providers are selected through open and competitive tender once a year, and must show sufficient knowledge, skills and experience.

Clarke insists there are plenty of opportunities for small businesses to offer training. Over time they will be expected to achieve a new standard, launched a few months ago, which employers have helped design to ensure that it is not too bureaucratic to deter small businesses from going for it.

Skills broker Dean Maragh runs the Watershed group, which focuses both on small business development and consultancy, and training the support sector. A small business owner himself, he employs five staff, supported by a network of virtual assistants. As a skills broker, he is keen to see more small firms on the Train to Gain roster, particularly as larger colleges are often reluctant to get involved if a business needs a bespoke course for only one learner.

What are the benefits?

Sean Taggart, who runs the Albatross Travel Group, was Significantly involved in the formation of Train to Gain in his role on the now defunct Small Business Council. “If it works the way it should, and I’m convinced it does, it is free access to advice,” he says. “Small business owners are notoriously isolated because they tend to be very time-poor, quite apart from any funding they may have, and I think the opportunity to have someone come in and give some impartial advice about how to develop their people is a phenomenal service. You don’t get this anywhere else.”

Tony Robinson OBE, founder of the Small Firms’ Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI), which accredits business support professionals, says: “I think it’s where the big money is and it’s where small businesses can get the best benefit of anything the government offers at the moment,” he says. “The reason I think it’s the best is that organisations like SFEDI were involved in the employer training pilots which came before it.”

And the downsides?

One of the concerns expressed by Taggart is that skills brokers are incentivised to hit  targets for the number of Level 2 qualification courses that are signed up for.

“Within the Small Business Council, we worked closely with the LSC to develop the performance-enabling criteria for the brokers, and we worked very hard to make sure it wasn’t predominantly about referrals to Investors in People or the number of Level 2 qualification courses,” he says. “But I think, unfortunately, there is some confusion over whether brokers are delivering a purely holistic approach, or being strongly encouraged to achieve Level 2 and other qualification targets.”

However, the LSC’s Jaine Clarke is keen to stress that this is not the case. The targets that they have, she says, are about the number of employers that they work with, be it by size, geography or sector. “We agree which employers and we agree a target for hard-to-reach employers, and we also agree a target for employer satisfaction,” she says. “They don’t have targets for the number of

learners supported through government funding, so it’s very clearly focused on working with employers, meeting their needs and giving good customer service so that employers are satisfied. It absolutely isn’t the salesforce for Level 2s.”

Several surveys last year also highlighted the fact that many small firms hadn’t heard of Train to Gain, but its profile is rising. The government has used TV and media campaigns and worked increasingly with business membership organisations to spread the word.

However, SFEDI’s Robinson argues that business bodies should have been given more of a lead role. “Where all the small business owners and SFEDI think there’s a big problem with government is that they spend such a large amount of money creating their own infrastructure to deliver a programme,” he says. “In our view, instead of recruiting the skills brokers and then using massive advertising and telemarketing to try and get engagement for them, they should go to the enterprise agencies, the Chambers of Commerce, the accountants, and put the skills brokers in as part of them.”

Meanwhile, Taggart believes there is some confusion in the marketplace as to what Train to Gain is, whether it’s just a brokerage or the delivery.

Has it been a success?

Despite these criticisms, Train to Gain is still a giant leap in the right direction. Of the 55,000 employers that have used the service since its launch, Clarke says around 72% have been small businesses (with fewer than 50 employees) and 73% were hard-to-reach employers that have not considered training in the past year. Satisfaction levels are high too.

Even Taggart, who recently quit the government’s Small Business Forum in protest, feels that it is essentially a hit. “Train to Gain is one of the best initiatives for some time,” he says. “So I’m still very supportive of it, I still believe that it’s a good thing.”

NIGHTINGALE ROOFING AND BUILDING SERVICES Markus Micklewright, company partner Employees: 14

“We decided to use the Learning and Skills Council’s Train to Gain programme because we wanted to set ourselves apart from the competition, which meant adding further disciplines to our portfolio. I was already in communication with (skills broker) Janet Powell at Business Link, exploring the support packages available, and she advised me to contact Train to Gain. We are always looking to strengthen our service offering, and we wanted to add a single ply roofing membrane installation service to our portfolio. Train to Gain needed us to meet criteria in relation to our business needs and show the funding would assist our skills base. We needed to show that investing in our staff would allow us to grow the business. The LSC part-funded the training, and within just a few days of the broker identifying our needs, we had booked the training course. The actual training began within a matter of weeks. This opened up new tender opportunities almost immediately and we quickly secured new contracts.”


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