'Winning the award was a tremendous vote of confidence,' says Mairi Munro, director responsible for training at E&O, a Scottish-based manufacturer of medical products.
'It has always been a part of our work, but it's good to have this recognised by experts from outside who really know what they're talking about.'
This small firm which manufactures medical diagnostic equipment in a highly specialised field has always viewed staff skills as vital, and 'because we're unique,' Munro explains, 'we can't recruit qualified staff off-the-shelf and therefore have always been very committed to training'.
E&O therefore prefers to look for capable, but unqualified new recruits: 'Most come to us in their early 20s with some skill - but in a completely different area,' she says. 'So, for example, we have machinists and factory workers but rarely anyone with laboratory experience.'
As a result ever since its inception in 1989, the company has accepted the necessity for training. E&O's latest award-winning scheme began with the news that a much larger rival company was moving production to Europe. This resulted in inevitable hiccups in delivery and quality for that company, which in turn created a gap in the market that E&O was keen to exploit.
To do this successfully, quality control would be paramount, requiring the total commitment of E&O's 21-strong staff.
To prepare employees for the new work, E&O ear-marked £3,000, and approached local training providers for expert advice. One in particular - Hamilton College - seemed perfect for the task in hand and between them they developed a six-week course. This required half the workforce to learn practical microbiological skills and some theory for one evening a week.
The aim was to give them a full understanding of the importance of what they were doing. To achieve this, staff needed to grasp what happens after the product leaves the factory gate. 'We taught them how to make up a plate, grow bacteria and sub-culture them out,' Munro explains.
Although the course was voluntary and unpaid, participants were rewarded with a certificate on completion. For the employer, though, the real bonus was the employees' added commitment to the work they were being asked to do. 'We wanted them to be very much aware that they were making a product which was for use in hospitals and which would be used to diagnose illnesses,' says Munro. 'The success rate has to be 100% - once our product leaves here, it is not a petri dish but something a human patient relies on, and we need our staff to understand this.'
If this is the theory, it certainly seems to have worked in practice for E&O. Since the end of the scheme, the company has increased turnover by £300,000 and boosted sales by 60%. Although Munro admits that it is impossible to explain how much of the success is due entirely to training, she is convinced that the new product line would have failed without the full involvement of the workforce.
'The customers were delighted with the high quality of our product, and ultimately that is down largely to training,' she says. Munro dismisses those observers who view training as a gamble and who advise E&O to bank its winnings quietly. Instead the firm is committed to developing further schemes: 'We've grown again since winning the award and are looking to develop the original course to a higher level,' says Munro.
'We're now looking at hospital visits where staff will spend half a day in a hospital laboratory, actually watching how the products they have made are used - training is a never-ending process.'.