Training is something that Pat Stringfellow, HR director at hygiene services company Initial Hygiene, takes very seriously. In fact, you could say it almost borders on an obsession for her. Mention the ‘t’ word and her eyes light up before she begins to eulogise about her self-confessed favourite subject.
Stringfellow’s passion and commitment was recognised at the end of last year when she received an MBE for services to training. The honour was proposed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for her work on the judging panel of the National Training Awards (NTA), recognising a decade of involvement with the scheme.
Stringfellow has seen the NTAs grow in size and recognition and is keen to encourage companies across the UK to get involved.
“I think it’s very easy for HR and training departments to lose sight of their achievements,” she said. “One of the things the NTAs force you to do is really evaluate the impact of the investment in training on your business. As an audit exercise it is good to go through even if you don’t win – although it’s nice if you do.”
Stringfellow knows about that winning feeling. Her previous support services company, BET, won an award in 1994 for a company-wide programme on improving productivity, and Initial’s parent company Rentokil also won in 1996 when she was in charge of the HR team at Initial Cleaning.
“The common bond is that NTA winners recognise that if your business is struggling there are several approaches you could adopt. Either slash your costs, reduce headcount and run it to the bone in the hope you might be able to revitalise the business. Or have the nerve to invest in the training and development of your workforce and [let them] get themselves out of trouble.”
So does the increasing number of NTA entries – more than 1,000 last year – mean that more companies are taking training seriously?
“I’d like to say yes, but I’m not sure if it’s true,” said Stringfellow. “It’s all too easy to slash training budgets and save costs. In my opinion, that’s a short-sighted and blinkered stance and it’s only the forward-thinking companies that don’t cut budgets when times are difficult.”
Although the NTAs are run by the DfES, Stringfellow believes the Government could be doing more: “Clearly what the NTAs are trying to do is encourage companies to invest in training, but there’s more that could be done – perhaps looking at something like tax breaks for firms that invest.
“What I don’t want to see is a return to training levies, where companies are compelled to contribute a percentage of their turnover towards a training board for their specific industry,” she added.
Doing the right thing
Stringfellow said that while the levy was meant to support training, in her experience it was swallowed by large, bureaucratic organisations where “most of the money went down the pan paying for people sitting in offices shuffling paper”.
“It’s so difficult for people to invest in training because it’s the right thing to do, but I personally don’t think forcing companies is the right thing to do,” she said.
Initial Hygiene needs no persuading to take training seriously. Labour-intensive businesses such as cleaning and washroom services traditionally require close attention to people issues and a watchful eye on increasingly complex legislation.
“You have got to be that much smarter nowadays about how you manage people,” Stringfellow said. “I want to ensure there is a clear focus on people as a critical resource.
“Motivation and training will be a big part of what I do here. At the moment we don’t have well-structured training programmes for our frontline staff and middle management, so I want to bring in a training and development framework for those people.”
For Stringfellow, this involves the huge challenge of introducing staff training based on NVQs and embarking on a programme to achieve Investors in People (IIP). She believes in IIP as an externally recognised standard of a well-run and well-managed business and the sign of a company with good people management practices.
“In too many places the HR function is detached from the commercial realities of the business. I want to manage our people fairly and reasonably, in tandem with achieving our corporate objectives.”
After her recent achievements it’s another challenge Stringfellow is looking forward to with relish.
Case study: Universal Music UK
Training programme leads to increase in market share
Structured training set up within a creative and artistic environment at one of the UK’s most successful group of record companies has helped to generate increased sales and profits for the group, and led to the company winning a National Training Award (NTA).
The programme is the brainchild of Mairin Gannon, head of training and management development at Universal Music UK, formerly Polygram Records.
Back in 1997, Universal’s total spend on training was less than £100,000 a year, mostly spent on health and safety and IT courses.
“We needed to persuade managers and staff of the value and relevance of training,” Gannon said. “But for some at the creative end of the business, the notion of attending training programmes was dismissed as too corporate.”
Nevertheless, she set herself a goal to design and deliver, over a five-year period, a set of focused, relevant and exciting modular training programmes. These are open to all staff, widely publicised, regularly run and fully attended.
A series of courses was designed, including one-day programmes in business and finance, new media and management skills, a five-day programme in negotiation skills and a three-day external course in leadership.
In addition, there were more than 1,000 man-days of training on other programmes. Total UK training spend rose to £480,000 in 2002.
Gannon says Universal Music UK’s group turnover and market share have increased in the past three years. “The ambitious nature of the programme was, and still is, completely unlike anything offered by our competitors,” he said.