Everyone agrees a continual commitment to training is vital if Britain is to maintain its position in the 21st century. As protectionism withers and barriers to global trade tumble, no company or individual can be complacent: new challenges can appear at any time from any direction.
At home an army of ambitious entrepreneurs are eager to challenge established rivals, while new challengers are emerging overseas, whether from Europe, the US or the Pacific Rim. We simply cannot continue to try to compete on costs alone.
Regardless of sector, the answer lies with higher added-value: in convincing customers that it is quality rather than price that matters. This means effective training for everyone, from assembly-line worker to manager, manufacturing or the service sector. Unfortunately, all too often firms see training as an avoidable cost - particularly when times are hard.
But, as the National Training Awards (NTA) show, the reverse is usually true. Many winning programmes cost remarkably little, particularly when devised in conjunction with the local Training and Enterprise Council (TEC). The savings frequently swamp what few costs are incurred. Consider award-winning RJB, which shaved more than £0.5 million from its annual outgoings for the price of a £10,000 programme. And what about the schemes on two Shell North Sea oil platforms which have already saved £19 million and generated a flood of ideas which are being extended throughout the multinational giant?
Of course, these stories do not on their own explain the benefits of entering competitions such as the NTA, of which there are plenty. For a start, there is the issue of motivation. All of this year's individual winners cited this as the most important factor in their entry. Not only does the award clearly signal their achievements, but for at least one it helped secure the total support of an employer for his continuing self-improvement programme. But even in the case of individual winners, employers also benefit. Success in a prestigious national competition guarantees favourable press coverage at every level. This can boost share price and enhance goodwill among employees (both existing and potential), by proving that the company has a commitment to staff which extends beyond mere profit.
In some cases these benefits can go further. J and K Ross and Texturing Technology both intend to use their awards as a marketing tool. They see them as proof of their total commitment to quality, alongside other quality indicators such as ISO 9000 and Investors in People.
There are many reasons for seeking publicity. Dudley's Priory Primary School, for example, was justly proud of its achievement in a competition normally considered the preserve of employers and training providers.
This theme is picked up by other winners who stress the value of benchmarking performance against outsiders - for example, Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet and RJB felt it to be particularly important.
The last word should go to Chris Ross. His family firm, J and K Ross, won on the first attempt, but his delight is tempered with annoyance: 'Like all companies, we are reliant on the quality of our suppliers - can you imagine how much better we could be if every one of the 500 firms we deal with strove to meet the standards we set ourselves?'
For further information, contact the National Training Awards Office (0114 2593419)
RJB Mining (UK)
'The evaluation process is the scheme's real benefit - the award merely a bonus,' says John McDonald, training officer at RJB Mining's Thoresby Colliery near Mansfield. 'It's all very well having a training scheme, but it isn't until you've carefully added up the costs and benefits that you can really see how well you're doing.' He says it was not until the company exposed its inner workings to external scrutiny that it realised how successful its programmes were proving. 'We spent about £10,000 on our supervisor training programme last year,' he explains. This immediately reaped dividends as participants began to use their initiative. Most importantly, however, old equipment was thoroughly checked before being replaced with new plant, resulting in a massive saving of well over £500,000. 'We're a unique industry, so we have to do all our own training,' explains McDonald.
'Without direct competitors, it would be easy to be complacent, so it's vital that we benchmark as we go along.'
Heather Walker, Production Manager, European
Components 'I'd already gained a qualification, been promoted from the assembly-line to management and had infinitely more responsibility and job satisfaction - but the award was definitely the icing on the cake.' Even as she started work on the assembly-line at Belfast-based European Components, Heather Walker felt she needed structured training to make the most of her career.
The answer was an NVQ in management, because it allowed her to build on practical experience and gave her flexibility to work and learn at the same time. She topped this off with a postgraduate management qualification.
Walker is quick to share the credit. 'The company was behind me throughout the three years, both financially and emotionally.' In return, she believes her employer gets excellent publicity: 'It proves their commitment to equal opportunity, training and developing their employees.'
Mike Millman, Head Teacher, Priory Primary School, Dudley
'Schools are often not seen as models of best practice in training - particularly not primary schools - but in fact many of the best innovations go on at our level,' says Mike Millman, head teacher at Priory Primary School, Dudley. The school's award came from its programme to encourage parents to participate in their children's education, concentrating on the core skills of reading, writing, spelling and maths. Considering its base in a particularly deprived part of the West Midlands, (36% of pupils are on the special needs register and 44% receive free school meals), this was no mean target. To back up its goals, the school introduced adult education programmes for parents and training sessions for staff. Perhaps the programme's most remarkable success has been among parents. Since 1995, almost 850 Access to Lifelong Learning certificates from the Open College network have been awarded and three parents have even gone on to take university degree courses. 'Given our socially disadvantaged area,' says Millman, 'it was particularly rewarding to be the first primary school in the country to be recognised for our contribution to community training.'
Rachel Kirk, Lewes Technical College
'I wanted to get my achievement formally recorded almost purely for my own benefit,' admits Rachel Kirk. 'I wanted to clarify what I'd done for myself.' Based at Lewes Tertiary College, Kirk is now a part-time lecturer but she began her teacher-training programme six years ago, intending to become a speech therapist. As part of her programme, she spent 15 hours a week at two prisons, Lewes and Wandsworth. It was there that she became interested in teaching IT skills to students with learning difficulties.
The college provided support for Kirk's work by allowing her to construct an IT training programme based around her degree work and was so impressed with her achievements that it appointed her full-time IT co-ordinator when her predecessor retired. When she began, IT classes had a maximum of six students, but within a year she had boosted this to 14 and now there is a waiting list. 'The award has really boosted my professional status,' she beams. 'It backs up my choice of career and my employers are delighted by the recognition it signifies. They were behind me all the way so it's only right that they should also gain from the press coverage and prestige a national award gives to everyone involved.'
Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet
'We already have pieces of paper telling us we're an outstandingly good school,' says Eamonn Harris, head teacher of Queen Elizabeth's School in north London, 'but it is especially valuable to be judged in comparison with private industry and outstanding individuals.' Although in terms of academic results the school was already one of the country's top grant-maintained schools, Harris felt productivity improvements could be achieved through training and management restructuring: 'We want all our systems and our team to work in harmony - not to rely on individual stars,' he says. The Institute of Management's Competent Manager programme seemed the perfect solution. Fifteen staff members gained NVQ level 4 in management and membership of the IoM. These individual successes delight Harris: 'In order to teach at the highest possible levels we need a sub-structure which is absolutely robust and can cope with anything we throw at it,' he says. 'The award tells us we're on the right track.'
J and K Ross
'Winning was a great feeling, not just for me but for everyone involved in the training programme. In fact, when I got back from the ceremony, I felt like running around the factory screaming in triumph: we'd all won something as a team.' Chris Ross, sales director of family firm J and K Ross, is in no doubt about the value of his award. The company, which supplies personal safety equipment, impressed the judges with a training programme targeted individually at every member of staff. Some were encouraged to study for management qualifications, others to enrol on Modern Apprenticeships, yet others to work on team-building. 'Of course we're committed to this with or without official recognition but we feel it's important that other people can see that too.' Ironically, however, Ross adds that the company's success is a source of irritation too: 'If only we could get our suppliers to take on board what we've done and to copy our example,' he says. 'Only a handful of our 500 suppliers are making the most of their staff with training programmes. Sometimes it drives me mad to think how much better they - and therefore we - could be if they were only to invest in educating their workforce.'
Wight Merit Hotels
'When you've managed to do what we have, it's worth shouting about. Against the background of a really bad recession which was forcing many other small hotels to close on the Isle of Wight we started from nothing - and succeeded.' Lillian Bushby, press and PR director of Wight Merit Hotels, is justly proud of her part in an award-winning programme which began in 1992. 'We had to prove that our hotels offered really good value for money,' she says. 'And to do that we knew we would need professional help.' After a attending a marketing workshop organised by the local TEC, the hoteliers formed a consortium.
'Our businesses are also our homes,' says Bushby. 'We had a vision to survive, but it involved a lot of hard work - one day a fortnight spent away from our hotels on training courses, not to mention the homework and discussion groups.' The result was that the group, Wight Merit, detected and successfully developed a new market - selling travel packages direct to the island to overseas visitors. 'When you're in a business like ours, all publicity is good publicity and the award gives the press, the local TEC and Isle of Wight tourism ample reason to trumpet our cause,' she says.
Texturing Technology/ Swansea Institute of Higher Education
'We see the award as just one part in a commitment to quality. We want potential customers to see that we've achieved high quality standards in every field,' says Jeff Thomas, general manager of Texturing Technology.
Founded by British Steel and Court Holdings of Canada to exploit new electro-discharge surface engineering technology, from its inception the company knew it had to rely on its own staff training programme. Accordingly, even before it began recruitment, the firm was working with Swansea Institute of Higher Education to develop training programmes. These quickly paid off and by May 1997 had been recognised with an ISO 9000 quality award.
'We then decided to go for a training award in the hope that customers would recognise we had a total commitment to quality throughout the company,' says Thomas. 'Now we're aiming for an Investors in People award. You can never stand still in the search for total quality.'
Caithness Glass/Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise
'We went in for the award because of the recognition it gives to the successful business partnership between ourselves and the local enterprise company,' says a spokesman for Caithness Glass. 'When you win an award, it allows you to show everyone though mass advertising that your employees have something special.' He is referring to a training scheme which was born out of a crisis for the company. It was only after the firm had won an order for 3,500 commemorative rose bowls, that it realised it had only one glassblower with the necessary skills. Within two months it had forged seven teams capable of turning out bowls to the required high standards.
Winning the award was a bonus: 'To be able to point to a award like this is a very useful marketing tool,' says the spokesman.
Shell UK Exploration and Production
'The North Sea is a mature oil province and we are always looking for new ways in which to improve our performance, thereby extending field life and preserving jobs. We regard this as an innovative project and entering the competition is a good way for us to benchmark our progress.' As Shell's asset manager for two ageing platforms, Cormorant and Dunlin Alpha, Tom Brown has no doubt about the value of his award-winning training programme. He explains that a major limitation on the life of an oil platform comes from operating costs which mount as the installation ages. Traditionally these are tackled by cutting manning levels, but on Cormorant and Dunlin levels were already low. Improved productivity was the obvious alternative.
Shell devised a module-based programme designed to encourage initiative, side-stepping logistical problems by flying instructors out to the rigs to provide training during working hours where possible. The 'empowerment' strategy quickly paid dividends and by the end of 1996 had improved profitability by 19% and reduced unit costs by 10%, resulting in annual savings of £19 million. 'These experiences show what can be achieved by investing in people,' concludes Brown. And - as if further proof of the exercise's value were needed - he points to the database of over 400 ideas thrown up by the scheme, many of which will be extended throughout the company.
'Not only does our approach to people with disabilities reflect our core business values, it makes sound business sense,' explains Simon Cain, operations training manager for employment services specialist Manpower.
He says that the company's award for equal opportunities training originated when managers spotted that Manpower's job application forms were off-putting for disabled applicants. As a result, staff lacked a full appreciation of the problems affecting people with disabilities and in particular were not equipped to handle enquiries sensitively. The company devised an awareness project and set out to increase disabled staff numbers by 25%. This was based on training for 250 managers at regional centres, with the intention that the skills would 'trickle down' the organisation. The success of the project was marked with the award of the 'Two Ticks: Positive About Disabled People' Award in February last year. The company is delighted: 'By opening up recruitment to include people with disabilities, we are reaching a largely untapped pool of skill and talent,' says Cain.
'The great value of the award is that it helps focus attention on what you've achieved and win the support you need to carry on with the learning process.' When Steve Mercer left the army at 21, he found difficulty readjusting to civilian life. After a series of part-time jobs, he joined Rochdale Council as a binman in 1989, determined to make the most of his talents.
An HGV driving qualification whetted his appetite, followed by management, business and accountancy qualifications. Afterwards came health and safety and quality assurance auditing courses. Although Mercer has now been promoted to technical manager in the Direct Services organisation, he says that the council has benefited just as much as himself: 'Because of my development into a management career, far more manual workers in the organisation are requesting a wider range of training which the authority has to offer.
The award is not a means to an end, I believe it's an acknowledgement of what I've achieved through training.
As for the future? I don't want to rest on my laurels - I know I've got more potential and want to unlock as much as possible.'
Graham Murray, GEC Alsthom Metro-Cammell
'Although I've been trying to develop my potential for over a decade, I only decided to enter when I was sitting in an awards seminar last year,' says Graham Murray of GEC Alsthom Metro-Cammell. 'I realised I filled most of the criteria and put my name forward.' Murray's modesty does him credit. Since his career in the RAF was cut short by a car accident, he has added to his engineering background with qualifications in English, business studies, economics, Spanish, teaching and training. The award sparked a remarkable degree of interest.
Not only was he was quizzed on his ambitions by Lord Simpson, managing director of GEC, but he found it brought surprising rewards closer to home: 'Knowing that there is going to be a shortfall in engineers in the future, it's part of my job to promote the subject in local schools. The award has already allowed me to lecture in universities and - with luck - it will help me to travel too.'
Hero Drinks' (now Cotts Beverages) office cleaning team
'Their achievement has had a positive motivational effect on all our staff. They realise that with the company's investment in their development and their own determination, they too could each achieve significant personal and working benefits.' The spokesperson at Cotts Beverages is referring to a team of cleaners whose efforts to improve their qualifications bowled over the NTA judges. The three cleaning staff - at what was then Hero Drinks - felt they could achieve more and decided to improve their status through learning. Backed by the company, Irene Tongue opted to improve her writing, Maggie Mison learned to type, while supervisor Dawn Way went for formal management training. Armed with their new skills, the three set up an in-house shop to sell goods to staff and as this prospered, added further qualifications. Soon they were able to provide cover for staff absence. The immediate benefits to the company were estimated savings of £45,000 from shop sales and a cut in the wage bills for temporary staff of £10,000. 'An organisation doesn't have to spend vast amounts of money on training consultants,' says the spokesperson. 'A structured, well-thought out and cost-effective programme of individually-tailored training can produce great effects.'
How to find out more about the 1998 Awards
If you would like to learn more about this year's National Training Awards competition you can contact your local TEC, LEC, Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Ireland Training & Employment Agency, Scottish Enterprise in Scotland or Management Learning Resources in Wales. You will find the numbers in your local telephone directory.
Workshops will be running in each area to tell you much of what you need to know abut entering the competition. Case studies describing the activities of 1997 winners can be obtained from the National Training Awards Office on 0114 2593419
Entries for the 1998 competition can be submitted to the NTA office between 1 April and 15 May 1998.