If you want to summarise the National Training Awards, you could say they reflect patterns of best practice in British industry,' says John Adshead, Sainsbury's personnel director and an NTA judge.
His enthusiasm for the awards is clear as he goes on to list the central elements of the thousands of entries he and his fellow judges will be scrutinising this year. 'Modern apprenticeships, skill diversity and equal opportunities all feature,' he says. 'But perhaps more importantly, the winning entries will show the growing partnership between firms and TECs over NVQs, Investors in People and Lifetime Learning.'
The strengthening of the links between industry, training and education are certain to be increasingly important as many traditional business certainties disappear. It is adaptable companies and their staff which will thrive in the new millennium and this year's award-winners are likely to be next century's commercial successes.
The fundamental impetus for a fresh attitude to training is undoubtedly the changing nature of world markets. While much of the recent political debate has focused on competitiveness within the European Union, there is also stiff competition from the tiger and newly industrialised economies of the Pacific Rim, as well as from the emerging economies of central and eastern Europe. Britain cannot compete on wages alone: if we are to play our proper part in the new millennium, we must look to increasing our skills base to add the value upon which our competitiveness must be founded.
This fact has undermined many of the old cosy relationships between suppliers and their customers. Gone are the days when firms could rely on regular orders from a handful of dependable clients. Instead the engineering industry, for example, has seen the widespread adoption of just-in-time management, small production runs turned around in a matter of a few hours at very short notice. Above all, this technique demands a commitment to quality which can only be achieved with a totally committed, highly skilled workforce. In this harsher, more demanding environment, only those engineering companies which have invested heavily in promoting training and staff flexibility have flourished.
Other changes at the workplace reinforce this trend. Trade union reforms, coupled with new technology, have led to the breakdown of job demarcation, and a huge growth in part-time working. The result has been a huge upheaval across the business world. There are plenty of success stories to illustrate the point. By the end of the '70s, for example, British Leyland was a byword for industrial unrest, restrictive practices and shoddy workmanship as it strove to produce budget vehicles in competition with a growing number of cheap imports.
Today its successor, Rover, has repositioned itself as a manufacturer of middle-market vehicles, selling itself on quality rather than price with the catchphrase, 'Above all it's a Rover'. The policy has scored notable export successes in new markets too - the former Soviet Bloc being one of them. Nevertheless, the company freely admits the strategy was only possible after a minor industrial revolution within the company.
Out went traditional demarcation, in came flexible working - both of which naturally required heavy investment in training.
Some of Britain's most remarkable recent innovations teach the same lesson.
In 1993, James Dyson launched his revolutionary vacuum cleaner, the Dual Cyclone, to challenge the might of Electrolux and Hoover, each of which had a 40% share of the British market. Rather than compete on cost, Dyson Appliances stressed the quality of its technology and workmanship, backing this up with an after-sales service which includes courier collection of faulty cleaners and a 24-hour repair service at its Malmesbury plant.
Such an emphasis on quality, innovation and customer service does not come cheap, but customers have shown themselves willing to pay the premium: the company's turnover has soared from £3 million in 1993 to £55 million in 1995 with export markets now looking particularly promising.
Gone are the days when school leavers strolled into the local factory or office, safe in the knowledge that in 50 years' time they would walk back out of the same door and into retirement. In our parents' day, the tacit contract of loyalty between the employee and employer was based on three certainties - job security, a clearly structured career path and predictable salary increases.
All this has gone, however, to be replaced by the radically different disciplines of profit-related pay and a constant review of each worker's employability. Whether we like it or not, the economic and industrial upheavals of the '80s mean that for most people traditional job security has vanished. The concept of a job for life no longer exists and instead today's school leavers can expect to move between several employers through the course of their careers.
The result has been a subtle redrafting of the unwritten contract between employer and employee. One approach is for staff to be encouraged to see themselves as self-employed people who sell their labour to one customer - their employer. Under this interpretation, employees' loyalty is motivated by the vested interest of keeping their prime customer happy and progressively acquiring skills during the course of their work to help improve their employability both inside and outside their company.
While employers may no longer be able to promise job security in return for loyalty, what they can offer is high-quality training. This means that as companies expand or contract with the economic cycle - or as new technology supplants the current modus operandi - workers know they have skills which will stand them in good stead, inside or outside their present workplace.
Indeed, looked at from another angle, some management gurus believe the long-term trend is even more extreme. They argue that new staff should be recruited for their personalities, that the existing skills base is only a secondary consideration. In other words, it is better to find the right person and train him or her for the job rather than look for a specific skill and then try to squeeze possibly the wrong personality into the company.
Many companies appear to be following the advice of investing in training, according to a recent report by the Centre for Research and Employment in Europe (CREE), Britain's Flexible Labour Market: What Next?. This identifies a significant increase in 'knowledge' workers - staff who are valued for their skill at problem-solving and their ability to turn their hands to several tasks.
Often they will be formally qualified, but not always - sometimes common sense is just as good a starting point - but in either case, to make the most of their workers, employers need to build on this base.
The required training can take many forms. For example, employees might be given a grounding in other employees' work so that in the case of illness or a sudden emergency, they can step into the breach without incurring the high cost of agency temps. Alternatively, it might be courses designed to encourage initiative. Whatever form training takes, however, experts agree it strengthens the relationship between employee and employer. The former know that they are gaining skills and are valued by their bosses, the latter gets a more adaptable workforce and greater loyalty.
Such moves are not confined to full-time staff. Many employers are increasingly dependent on part-time workers. Often these are more flexible than full-timers, able to expand or contract their hours according to the order book. In other cases highly-skilled workers - such as mothers with young children - simply cannot put in a full working week. In both cases training schemes can help retain valuable experience, while also anticipating future change, as new technology makes one machine obsolete, the all-rounder (whether full-or part-time) steps deftly into the breach, saving costly recruitment and the loss of tried-and-tested personnel.
The era of the flexible worker is here to stay and can be found not only in traditional manufacturing but in the service sector too. While most accept the theory, unfortunately, although everyone agrees on the need for more training and improved flexibility, far too few employers are putting this into practice. According to the CREE report, 'For some 70% of those at work, the end of jobs-for-life has not been accompanied by training in those core skills required by the new culture of high performance dictated by globalisation; employers' attitudes remain long on intentions and short on deliverables'. All too often it seems that managers regard training budgets as a luxury - despite widespread lip service, these are often the first to be cut when times get hard.
A common reason cited for this reluctance to invest in staff is that many employers are worried the rewards of their investment may be reaped by rivals through poaching. In fact, anecdotal evidence points the other way. For example, BP's chemical plant at Saltend near Hull, says that its Modern Apprenticeship programme shows employees that the company values them, while bolstering the corporate image in the local community. Both factors reinforce loyalty and have resulted in a remarkably low drop-out rate.
In spite of this general reluctance to invest, however, evidence is beginning to emerge that the drive to instil flexibility is becoming more widespread and bearing macro-economic dividends.
For years the rigid apprenticeships of German industry were held up as the training system which produced the most highly-skilled workers in the world. In contrast British industry was ridiculed for its failure to invest in such long-term, costly and specific training. Now the tables may be turning, however. According to recent research by the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences at Cardiff University, flaws are now appearing in the German approach.
The study, which compared German firms with firms in south Wales, found that training in Germany tended to be led by immediate needs, while our firms were more likely to be driven by a desire to spread skills more evenly through the workforce. Of the Welsh companies studied, nearly half had developed plans to multi-skill employees, while another third said they encouraged staff to enlarge their range of skills, and 37% included social and team-working skills in their training programmes. In addition, Welsh employers were found to place less stress on formal qualifications, with much more emphasis on experience than their German counterparts who dictate that entry to skilled jobs is almost exclusively through formal apprenticeship schemes. Although until recently the Germany's skills were the envy of the industrialised world, as recession, unification and new technology have rocked its industry, its workforce has often found it difficult to adapt quickly to change.
It was in recognition of this need for flexibility and new skills that the Government launched the NTA in 1987. Since then there have been some 10,000 applications from companies vying for around 100 awards annually.
Entries vary widely, ranging from public to private sector, from individuals to corporate giants, from Modern Apprenticeships to equal opportunities programmes. In spite of this, winners show common characteristics.
'I'm looking for schemes where training has led to real and tangible benefits like greater productivity, improved orders or quality control,' says Sainsbury's Adshead.
Fellow judge Alan Bellamy, deputy chief executive of NCVQ, says he searches for close partnership between training and qualifications.
'I look for linkage of training design with the national qualification system, he says. 'I'm particularly interested to see whether schemes achieve qualification outcomes such as credits towards NVQs or SVQs.'
He adds that he is pleased to note this is a trend which seems to be catching on. 'Over the past couple of years there has been a radical increase in the number of submissions which link companies to national training schemes.'
In recognition of this trend, the NTA have been relaunched this year with an increased emphasis on employers.
Accordingly there is now to be closer involvement of TECs in England in encouraging entries and celebrating winners. There will be up to 200 national awards chosen in the regions. Three sizes of company category are to be introduced: 0-49 employees, 50-199, and over 200. As before, however, there will be awards for training providers and individuals but chiefly in partnerships with employers. The competition will be open for entries from February to mid-May
Certainly, previous winners are staunch backers of the awards.
British Steel, for example, is the only company which has won a regional or national award every year since the launch of the NTA back in 1987.
According to its latest winning division, British Steel Strip Products, which is based in south Wales, there are two main reasons for entering NTA. 'We're proud of our trainers who define our training needs and deliver our requirements and we're proud of our trainees too,' says personnel manager John Walne. 'We like to see their efforts rewarded by recognition from outside the company.' He adds that the NTA is also a useful way of casting an objective eye over the company's programmes. 'Asking outside experts to look at the excellence of our programmes keeps us on our toes,'
he says. 'I suppose you could call it benchmarking.'
For Kim Morton, personnel director at Dorothy Perkins, recognition was the main reason for entering the awards. 'We know than an award like this will do a heck of a lot of good in future recruitment. We can point to the award and show that we've got a genuine commitment to our staff.'
'Certainly there is a PR benefit to us in winning a prestigious award,' confirms Sue Jewell, personnel manager at BP Chemicals, Port Talbot. 'As we were putting together this package, we visited a lot of other companies and learned by example about best practice. The awards are a way of giving something back in the form of an experience others can learn from.'
Individual award-winner Penny Rushen, who is training manager at Dudley Catering Services, believes there are good commercial reasons for entering.
'An award is something you can quote when you're tendering for a job,' she says. 'It demonstrates a commitment to quality and people and it is something to show investors.' She stresses, however, that the awards are much more than this. They are a training tool all companies should use.
'We try to encourage everyone to go in for awards: it motivates people and shows them what they can achieve,' she says. 'I put my money where my mouth is and applied because I want my staff to apply. I started out in catering making fairy cakes, and I try to show other people that if I can do something, they can do it too.'
Information about how to take part in the National Training Awards can be obtained in England from the TECs listed at the end of this section, and in Scotland from the Local Enterprise companies (LECs). For Wales and Northern Ireland, please contact the organisations listed.