Extra taxes could be imposed on manufacturers to pay for training in the West Midlands. The idea was backed by a senior trade union leader during a House of Commons inquiry.

Frances O'Grady, TUC deputy general secretary, said a levy could be introduced to pay for courses. The measure could get more employees into training, she said.

A similar scheme already operates in France, where companies pay a tax into a special training fund.

They can then apply to the fund for money to pay for staff training. Ms O'Grady was speaking during a hearing of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, chaired by Worcestershire MP Peter Luff (Con Mid Worcestershire).

She was quizzed by MP Rob Marris (Lab Wolverhampton South West), who asked her: "What about the anecdotal evidence, widespread in the Black Country and West Midlands, that there are training opportunities available to employees who do not take them up?"

She said: "All the evidence nationally, including in the Midlands with which I am pretty familiar, is that there is an enormous appetite amongst the workforce.

"Clearly, we have a big job to do to build people's confidence and their ability to take opportunities to train.

"Again, our experience through our 15,000 elected union learning representatives around the country is that it is very simple: if you provide training in paid working time, ideally where people are working, you will get not just high take-up but high completion."

A compulsory training levy may be the only way to improve skills, she said.

"If there are better ways of doing it we want to hear them, but it simply will not happen if it is left on a voluntary basis."

She added: "The good employers are fed up with being undercut by poor employers and they want a level playing field."

Representatives of employers' body the Engineering Employers Federation told the same hearing that manufacturers would require workers with more skills in the future.

And they praised the Rover Task Force for its training of former Longbridge employees following the collapse of the Birmingham carmaker.

EEF director general Martin Temple said: "Within the manufacturing scenario we used to use quite a lot of unskilled labour. Today we need more and more skilled labour at various levels. That trend will continue through the next decade or so.

"Therefore, there is a shift from unskilled to skilled and within that there is a changing range of skills."

Stephen Radley, the organisation's chief economist, said the Task Force was a rare example of getting it right.

"Industry has lost important skills because it has not taken appropriate action. A good example of the opposite is Rover Task Force where the great majority of the skilled people were able to find jobs, a fair number in manufacturing and others in other parts of the economy. We have perhaps failed to do enough of that in the past."