Employers must not slash staff training to save money during the downturn, a coalition of senior UK businessmen and union leaders has warned in an open letter to firms.

Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks & Spencer, Sir Michael Rake, chairman of BT Group, Mervyn Davies, chairman of Standard Chartered, the CBI’s director general Richard Lambert and Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC have co-signed the letter, which appears in a number of national newspapers today, calling on employers to sustain or even increase their investment in training.

“Now is precisely the time to keep investing in the skills and talents of our people,” it states. “It is the people we employ who get us through. When markets are shrinking and order books falling, it is their commitment, productivity and ability to add value that will keep us competitive. Investing now in building new skills will put us in the strongest position as the economy recovers.”

Tomorrow the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) will launch the “Simplification of Skills in England” plan, which aims to make publicly funded training provision more responsive to business needs by providing employers with one point of contact – a single team of brokers – who will advise on business and training support solutions.

A new web-based tool will also be launched, allowing employers to create a bespoke skills development plan for their organisation.

Business secretary Peter Mandelson said: “I know people face tough decisions, but I would urge businesses to invest in skills and training to ensure that they are well placed to take advantage of the opportunities when global economic conditions improve."

Sir Michael Rake, who is also chairman of UKCES, added: “This is no time to have a skills system which is extremely complex and difficult for employers to get round. Equally, we want to say to employers: ‘You cannot afford to miss the opportunity to develop the skills of your workforce when the offer from public providers is being made even simpler, more flexible and more responsive’.”