I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this special section on the National Training Awards (NTA) and to let you know about the future arrangements for this competition.
First of all congratulations to the 1996 winners. Gaining an award is no mean achievement - judging is very rigorous and competition fierce.
To win, entrants must demonstrate a training initiative which is outstanding and has achieved quantifiable business results. In these pages you will be able to read about some of the many companies and individuals who have attained success through training initiatives. This year - the 10th anniversary of the awards - marks a turning point and a chance to look back on the achievements of the past 10 years as well as forward to the future.
Readers will know how important training is in today's competitive environment - it has been shown time and time again that effective development of staff improves both individual and business performance. In a world in which economic barriers are disappearing, where orders and investment decisions pay little regard to national frontiers, where tastes, products and markets change swiftly, our national competitiveness is at a premium.
In a global economy, the people issues - education, training, skills and competence - matter more than ever. Our aim must be to create a learning society; learning must be for, and throughout, life. It is crucial for our economic prosperity. It is the engine that drives British competitiveness.
I am pleased to see that Investors in People, as a vehicle for improving the skills of their staff, rates highly for companies winning awards this year. Many organisations either hold or are working towards IIP and a substantial number have adopted National Vocational Qualifications (or SVQs in Scotland). These ensure that people's career progression and training is closely linked to business objectives.
I was also pleased to be able to give a special award for excellence in developing Modern Apprenticeships and to recognise an organisation whose outstanding training has benefited those with special needs.**
There have been nearly 800 national winners since the awards started in 1987. Looking back over that period, it is clear that winners have helped to increase a commitment to training and that the way the competition is planned and executed has significantly progressed. Early winners were often firefighting - doing something effective to solve a particular problem.
Today there is more strategic planning of training, driven by business needs and integrated into the main business plan. In fact, people development is part of the organisational culture of those who have won awards. Another key indicator of progress is increased evidence of multi-skilling which gives greater flexibility both to an organisation and to its people.
NTA has a continuing important role throughout the UK but 1997 marks the beginning of new arrangements for the competition; these will bring the training challenge closer to businesses.
The new competition will focus much more on employers who will be able to enter one of three size categories according to the number of people they employ. Training providers will usually need to enter in partnership with an employer, and individuals must be sponsored by one. The TECs in England will, for the first time, be involved formally in running the competition. In Scotland, the LECs will be responsible for running the competition; the Northern Ireland Training and Employment Agency and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications in Wales will administer the scheme for Northern Ireland and Wales respectively. All bodies will be able to deploy the competition as one of a range of measures - such as Investors in People - to help employers improve the skills of their workforce.
Of course it would be easy at this juncture to sit back and contemplate a job well done. But there are still many employers and individuals to whom lifelong learning and investment in training seem an expensive diversion.
This is not the case. Research shows that training pays for itself in all manner of ways - through increased employee loyalty and versatility to name but two. So there needs to be a continuing effort to raise awareness and gain greater commitment to training and development into the millennium.
** The Secretary of State's Award for Modern Apprenticeships goes to the British Narrow Fabric Association Training Club with Southern Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce, Training and Enterprise and the Knitting Lace and Narrow Fabric Industries Training Resources Agency (KLITRA). The Secretary of State's Award for Outstanding Training Benefiting Those with Special Needs goes to the Workbridge Centre.