When times are tough it is tempting for businesses to take the first swing of the axe at training. Investment in skills and the development of staff suddenly moves from being a 'must do' to a 'nice to have'. After all, high unemployment makes it easy to recruit staff and surely anyone in a job is holding onto it for dear life.

Well I only have three words to say to businesses that believe this: wrong, wrong, wrong. Even putting aside the argument about running a sustainable business and the fact that the labour pool will look very different in a few years, why would you cut down investment in an area that is making a difference to the motivation, engagement and self-esteem of the very people who serve your customer and therefore deliver your competitive advantage? To do so in good times is questionable; to do so in challenging times plain mad.

Some in the food industry may take issue with this view, especially smaller firms and those working to the tightest of margins. So don't just take my word for it.Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, goes a step further, calling skills the "climate change of today". "We may be able to put off addressing the issue of skills today but if we don't do something in the next five to 10 years the situation will be severe," he warns.

And Norman Pickavance, HR director of Morrisons, says: "Skills brings ownership of your job, with ownership comes pride, with pride comes success in the job and with success in your job comes success in the business."

By prioritising investment in skills Morrisons is rolling out the largest vocational qualification programme in the UK as well as investing in degrees and mini MBAs Pickavance says the company, which employs 134,000 people, is delivering superior customer service to the 10 million people who walk through its doors each week, with obvious bottom-line benefits.

But it is doing more than this. It is addressing social mobility head on. Rather than 'recruit in', Morrisons is enabling its people to move from shopfloor to top floor. Indeed, a quarter of the top team started on the shopfloor aged 16, a third of the top 100 directors have been grown within the business and 95% of general managers at Morrisons are home-grown.

Investment in skills reduces recruitment costs, has a positive effect on absenteeism and labour turnover and increases employees' commitment to the business. But it does more than this: it helps people develop confidence, self-esteem and the desire to deliver the best. With the UK scrambling to carve a new niche in the world economy, it should be at the top of the agenda.

Siân Harrington is editor of Human Resources magazine