Learning reps win favour as they encourage skills access

Employers are giving the thumbs-up to Union Learning Representatives (ULRs)
ahead of legislation to give them more power. The Employ-ment Act, which comes
into force next month, will give ULRs statutory rights in the workplace
concerning delivery of training to their members.

While concerns have been raised in some quarters that these new powers may
result in conflict between ULRs and an organisation’s training function,
alliances have already been created between ULRs and training professionals
leading to a positive learning culture.

"The ULRs give our people more motivation," said Sandra Allan, a
training manager at Birds Eye. "It’s a very positive thing for the
workforce because the reps are trusted by their colleagues."

The company ran a series of interviews before appointing Champion Learning
Representatives, all of whom are recognised ULRs from the GMB union. They run
the company’s two learning centres, helping to assess employee needs and direct
them towards suitable learning resources. The legislation will give the
representatives time off work to do their job, much like safety
representatives, said Allan. "The company has always been supportive of
learning across the workforce and the new rights will give additional
importance to that agenda."

Head of TUC learning services Liz Smith is keen to emphasise the positive
aspect of having an advocate for training drawn from the workers rather than
management. "ULRs are not looking to usurp the role of a good training
department," she said.

"On the contrary, by working closely with the training manager the rep
can help trainers do their job more effectively. They can influence providers
increasing both the quality and relevance of training. They can also ensure
take-up is high."

Andy Westwood of the Work Foundation believes the new powers will add an
additional encouragement to training even without the close co-operation
between an employer and their worker’s union. "The more pressure brought
to bear on workers with low skills to encourage them to take up training
opportunities the better," he said. "There isn’t enough demand for
training from parts of the workforce and learning reps could address that
problem in a way organisations and even the Government cannot."

His view is echoed by Jacqui Henderson, chief executive of the Learning
Skills Council: "Our approach to addressing the skills needs of the
country is to demonstrate the benefits to employers of adopting employee
development programmes," she said. "The ULRs are extremely helpful in
generating the employee commitment required from the bottom up. The value and
benefits of the legislation outstrip any concerns employers may have about the
new rights."

Merseyside retailers Ethel Austin began working with union USDAW learning
reps three years ago, using them to promote and run a learning resource centre
at head office, accessible to its 2,200 staff. "The courses are
developmental rather than vocational," said head of HR Mark Thompson.
"We run basic skills, foreign language courses and at one point even
provided guitar lessons. If you offer learning opportunities to your staff you
benefit from a more motivated and enthusiastic workforce."

USDAW’s learning reps have promoted learning within the company, providing
advice and feedback on demand for courses from the workforce and expanding the
initiative to involve local colleges and other organisations.

By Simon Kent

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