Secrets of success

NVQs have been around for many years – long enough for a few tricks of the trade to emerge. But what are they?

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are work-related, competence-based qualifications. They have been around for quite a while and are used in all sorts of professions, from engineering to social care. But this doesn’t mean that NVQ programmes always run smoothly: like any training, there can be issues around aspects such as selection, time spent on training, mismatched expectations, and success rates.

To improve your chances of rolling out a successful programme, establish exactly why you are running it, who would be eligible and why, and the desired results. The worst and easiest training mistake to make is to just put people through a particular piece of training without first ensuring they are right for it.

This is particularly true of NVQs, which require a substantial time commitment from both the organisation and the employee. There needs to be buy-in from the board, HR, training, managers, and the employees undertaking the training, as well as a shared understanding of what is entailed. “Time, staff, finance and resources must all be made available for NVQ schemes to succeed,” says Colin Raine, director at NVQ Academy.

It might be that anyone doing the NVQ will have to spend one day a week at college, plus extra time during the week consolidating their learning. That needs to be clear from the outset.

Peter Leonard, apprentice development manager and lead NVQ internal verifier at BT’s Openreach Academy, says that when BT puts its apprentices through an NVQ, 90% of the first year is taken up with training. BT has an extensive apprenticeship programme, recruiting at least 250 apprentices each year, and it recently announced a drive to recruit 400 apprentices in 2007. It usually takes the apprentices two years to complete the training.

As they progress, the apprentices have to keep their NVQ portfolios up to date. Leonard advises anyone considering rolling out an NVQ programme to provide only electronic portfolios.

“We used to have paper portfolios, which we had to send in the post to the assessment centre,” he says. “They used to get lost in the post. And the apprentices themselves used to lose them.”

But switching to electronic portfolios has eliminated these problems. It has also made it much easier for Leonard and his team of assessors and verifiers to check how the apprentices are doing online. “It saves me and the assessors a lot of time, makes us more effective and enables us to help the candidate more easily, because we can see if they are struggling,” he says.

Another lesson BT has learned is not to expect the apprentice’s manager to be the assessor as well. “Operational managers might have other priorities and may not have the required time to devote to NVQs,” he says.

The good news on the time front is that much of the everyday training can take place while the person is doing their job. After all, when undertaken in a workplace setting – as opposed to at college – an NVQ is often described as on-the-job training. In fact, says Raine, a classic pitfall is to think of an NVQ as a course, rather than workplace learning.

“Many organisations treat NVQs as a course,” he says. “There is a belief that if you throw money at it, either from your own budget or from various funding opportunities, no other input is required.”

Money is always a consideration, and the cost of NVQ programmes varies greatly. A programme at Raine’s NVQ Academy costs £800 per person. Other providers charge anything from £300 to £1,500, so buyers must establish exactly what they are getting for their money.

Raine advises HR and training departments to select the all-inclusive options and go for onsite provision. “Otherwise, a ‘good deal’ often quickly becomes very expensive when staff cover and travel expenses for college days have to be met,” he says.

There are also subsidies to be had in the form of government funding. These are available through the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) ( On average, the LSC will spend £4,000 on funding a student through NVQ level 2 (equivalent to five good GCSEs, grades A to C) and will spend around £6,000 or more on funding a level 3 NVQ (broadly equivalent to two A levels). HR professionals should check out the LSC’s Train to Gain scheme, which matches organisational and training needs.

There is also the cost of the time individuals spend gaining their NVQ.

It all adds up, but employers can take comfort from the NVQ loyalty factor: those who undertake them tend to stay with the sponsoring employer for at least two years after completion.

Case study: Host Contract Management

Jerry Brand is founder of contract catering business Host Contract Management. It employs about 500 staff and puts seven to eight people through NVQs each year.

“I’m a great believer in NVQs,” Brand says. “They are very practical. We used to get people out of college who could only tell you theory, but couldn’t actually do [the work]. Our staff take cooking NVQs at general assistant level, starting at NVQ level 2.”

Brand says employers must realise that NVQs require a lot of effort. “It takes time when they are at college and then on-the-job training,” says Brand. “Those doing it need to dedicate company time and some of their own.

“Employers must provide support. For example, they need to provide a help desk, because people need to get hold of information quickly if the momentum is to keep going.”

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