By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff in Birmingham
Colleges should be "more active" in forging links with business, a minister has warned.
More courses should be tailored to business, said minister
John Healey, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, said the action was needed if the UK was to narrow its skills gap with other industrialised countries.
He said the further education sector was too often a "passive recipient" of decisions made by the government to improve training.
And it was "vital" the third of adults without basic skills were taught them.
In Germany, the proportion without basic skills is around 20%, while in the US, it is nearer 10%.
Addressing the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham, Mr Healey praised pilot schemes in place in 12 areas of the country, aimed at bringing businesses and colleges closer together.
These were brought in after complaints that courses were being offered without taking into account the needs of firms.
They have affected 3,500 employers and 17,000 staff. More than two-thirds of the companies involved have fewer than 50 workers.
The government will decide whether to extend the schemes elsewhere after the results of an evaluation come out later this month, Mr Healey said.
He added: "There are some examples of exceptional efforts by providers to create training needed by business. But too often these are exceptional."
Mr Healey said: "The government must play its part in supporting individuals and employers.
"Employers must take responsibility for the training of all their staff, taking into account the needs of their businesses and organisations.
"Individuals must take responsibility for their own development and be ready to learn new skills.
"We must ensure the system of provision responds to the local needs of employers and economies."
Mr Healey said the drive to improve adults' skills up to the equivalent of GCSE level was working.
Employers were less likely to train staff to a higher standard, such as an apprenticeship or vocational A-level, unless this level had already been achieved.
The government is increasing its funding for further education from £4.4bn last year to £5.6bn by 2005-6.
This, it says, is a "real terms" rise of 19%.
The AoC's chief executive, John Brennan, told the conference: "I will not be slow to support the government when it makes the right policy choices."
But he added: "It is inside the big tent that we can see the big picture best, and do something about it."
An AoC survey found 70% of companies wanted a more highly trained workforce in their area.
Meanwhile, 90% thought businesses should be more involved in planning the development of skills.
Dr Brennan said: "There is no point in anyone acting as if it is always colleges that have to catch up with the rest of the economy and its needs.
"If this were the case once, then it is not any more.
"The average employee receives only 1.8 days' training each year. I have known Christmas parties last longer than that."