What help is the government offering to improve IT skills in the workplace, and is it working? Donald Taylor investigates how successful the Train to Gain scheme is likely to be, how it works and how IT training managers benefit.

The UK IT skills shortage never seems to end. Last year, the sector skills council, e-skills UK, issued a series of reports showing an increase in the number of UK employers reporting IT staff skills deficiencies, and highlighting skills shortages in certain areas. At the same time, the IT industry is growing at five to eight times faster than other sectors, requiring 150,000 new entrants each year.

Poor skills as a whole (not just IT) are reckoned to contribute considerably to poor UK productivity, 21per cent below US levels, and 8 per cent under Europe's.

In response to the Leitch Review of Skills (December 2006), the government has pledged £900 million by 2010/11 to raise skills levels in England via Train to Gain, and similar schemes elsewhere in the UK. So far some £250m have been spent.

The Train to Gain programme, launched in August 2006, aims to reach 2.5 million learners by 2011, and deliver some 1.25 million level 2 qualifications (equivalent to five GCSEs, grade A-C).

If you haven't seen much of this money that is probably because it has been spent elsewhere, particularly on lower-level skills.

How it works

'Train to Gain puts organisations in touch with a skills broker, who can identify training suitable for their needs,' explains Clarke, director of skills for employers at supervising body the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). 'Training towards an employee's first level 2 qualification is free, and for employers there is a contribution to wage costs for time spent away from the workplace.'

This focus on the unskilled effectively rules most IT professionals out of receiving the most generous subsidies. As Tilly Travers of e-skills UK notes: 'Only between 2 and 4 per cent of IT professionals have yet to achieve a level 2 qualification.'

Subsidies are, however, available beyond level 2. For level 3 (A level), they run at about 50 per cent of the cost of training, according to Clarke, and are not confined to learning for qualifications. In addition, for small businesses, £1,000 is available per key manager for leadership and management training. Just over half the training is delivered by private providers, and the rest by the public sector, almost always FE colleges.

Success and failure

Train to Gain can be used to fund IT training, as language training company SIMON & SIMON found when bringing their web design in-house. Their skills broker helped them decide on and source Macromedia DreamWeaver training.

'We saved hundreds of pounds just in the training fees,' says managing director Simon Robinson, 'but the benefit goes beyond that. It helped us focus on web marketing. After one year, we have gone from nowhere to the top of relevant Google searches for business language training.'

This is the sort of success story that Train to Gain was designed for: increasing the productivity of small businesses by providing relevant training. Larger organisations, too, see value in Train to Gain. Staff from hospital services contractor Medirest are taking free IT level 2 courses at Uxbridge College in London.

Tom Kennedy, porter and domestic supervisor, says: 'I had never used a computer before I started this course. It is interesting and useful - you can't do without a computer these days.'

Not every business, though, is equally impressed. Jutta Moore, partner at peopleknowhow.co.uk, co-owns a restaurant and was approached by several skills brokers in Q1 2007.

'It was a bit confusing, as it looked like they were in competition with each other,' she says. 'In spite of several initial phone calls and meetings, nothing happened. When I chased them, I had replies that the funds had run out for now. No approach was made again until December 2007, when I had another meeting with a skills broker.'

In the six weeks since that meeting, no progress has occurred, and Moore remains unimpressed. 'The process is just too slow. I would certainly not rely on it to train my team.'
Nigel Paine, international learning consultant, and former head of L&D at the BBC, also experienced administrative problems in the early days of Train to Gain when on the board of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College.

'The main problems were related to the use of intermediaries who went into the companies and did the training needs analysis. Often their 'solution' was undeliverable and based on what got them paid fastest. That caused a huge amount of trauma in the early days and modifications were made to the process. Now it is working much more smoothly and with more flexibility.'

Going for brokers

These experiences reflect a concern of the Confederation of British (Industry CBI). While welcoming the sums of money for training and the concept of the skills broker, CBI principal policy advisory on education and skills Richard Wainer says: 'the performance of the brokerage service is patchy. Some are excellent, some not very good at all. If the first contact isn't positive, then the employer will be discouraged from coming back for more. London and the South East tend to be poor and others very good.'

The House of Commons Education and Skills Committee voiced similar concerns in its report of July 2007 on quality of the Train to Gain brokerage, and the unwelcome extra layer of bureaucracy.

Clarke accepts that broker quality is crucial to the initiative's success, but points out that an LSC quality improvement programme is already in place. 'All brokers are assessed against the "Business Support as a Profession" national standard, developed with Business Link and others in the sector.' She also points out that an independent evaluation of employers resulted in an 85 per cent satisfaction rating of the Train to Gain service.

How is the delivery done?

Others criticise Train to Gain for its focus on classroom training alone.

'Technology has a crucial role to play in the delivery of training, and can help small businesses that find it costly to release staff for classroom training,' says Laura Overton of the Towards E-learning Maturity project. 'The question is this: do skills brokers know enough to advise on everything, including non-classroom delivery methods? These people are change agents, not just selling training courses. Are they up to it?'

Clarke contends that brokers have no axe to grind, and just one interest to serve. 'Brokers look for the best solutions for employers. Their access to learndirect, one of the largest providers of e-learning, means that it's part of what they can and will offer.'

Train to Gain is not perfect. It will almost certainly not provide free training at the level you want, on the subject you want, unless you have an unskilled workforce. The broker you work with may not be one of the excellent ones identified by the CBI and the LSC. But the scheme clearly has improved, and has one great advantage in its favour: it costs nothing to find out more, and you can decide quite quickly whether it will work for you. To learn more, contact Train to Gain directly (see below).

One thing is for sure: Train to Gain is not going away. With a £1bn budget, this is the stuff of ministerial reputations and careers. It is probably worth making a phone call to see if your organisation can use some of that budget.


e-skills' guide to funding
Parliamentary report - Post 16 skills