Learning to play for a win-win situation

Despite
initial concerns, there is some evidence that training partnerships via the
Union Learning Reps scheme are having a beneficial effect

Training partnerships between companies and unions are providing employee
opportunities that go beyond basic skills tuition. At Metroline buses, training
manager Mick Hodges explains how its relationship with the Transport and
General Workers Union, (T&G) which began with courses including English as
a second language, has grown into the provision of a Learning Bus, delivering
access to a dozen PCs for staff to use for learning activities at the company’s
garages.

"The Learning Bus is used by drivers, engineers, cleaners, some
managers and administrative staff," says Hodges. "The training
offered is not really work related, but we benefit from offering it to current
staff. We also send the bus out into the wider community, where it acts as a
useful recruitment tool as well."

The development of Metroline’s training relationship mirrors the developing
role of Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) in the UK. According to Robbie
Gilbert, chief executive of the Employer’s Forum on Statue and Practice (EFSP)
the idea of the ULR first emerged to address basic skills problems. However,
with legislation in the Employment Act giving reps statutory and potentially
expanded responsibilities from April this year, Gilbert is concerned that
companies will find themselves saddled with a new union official, and little
idea of how to relate to them.

"I don’t believe it has ever been thought through as to how the ULRs
will work with the employer’s own provision of training, whether that be
through Investors in People (IIP), individual learning plans or other
initiatives," says Gilbert. Lack of clarity exists regarding how much time
the ULR can spend on their activities, how much access to and influence on
staff they should have and even how learning records created and maintained by
the ULRs in the course of their work should be used, for example.

Liz Smith, head of TUC learning services, dismisses these concerns,
indicating that by the time the legislation comes into effect, there will be
advice and guidance on ULRs in the form of a revised Acas code, a TUC handbook
and a guidebook for employers produced by the Department for Education and
Skills.

"This should not be a matter for confrontation," says Susie
Parsons, chief executive of the Campaign for Learning. "It is about
everybody doing the best for themselves. The employers can do what’s best for
their businesses and unions are helping them realise that."

IIP chief executive Ruth Spellman, says: "Unions are less worried about
promoting training as a ‘win-win’ initiative for staff and their employer. Any
company with a union can use that organisation to check what training
opportunities are being offered and what kind of success training has."

The forthcoming legislation is not the only indication that the Government
expects unions to have increased involvement in raising the skills of the
workforce. The Union Learning Fund, set up in 1998 by the DfES, continues to
fund initiatives and helped more than 28,000 people engage in learning
activities last year. The fund will become the responsibility of the Learning
Skills Council (LSC) from this month.

Liz Smith notes that funding is also available from the LSCs for smaller
scale local initiatives, and that this kind of finance is frequently used as
pump priming to release resources from elsewhere, including ‘matching funds’
from the employer themselves.

Company-matched cash

At British Bakeries in Newcastle, money from the Union Learning Fund was
matched by the company to establish a learning centre for its 280 employees.
Patrick Hutchinson, a ULR from the Bakers, Food &Allied Workers Union, has
been seconded from the shopfloor to manage the centre on a full-time basis.

"The learning centre has been a joint partnership between the union and
the company split down the middle," he says. "The company’s side has
not just been in cash – it has provided space for the centre to be set
up."

With much of the course provision coming from Learndirect, the British
Bakeries centre provided a good business case for management as well as
increasing its workers’ skills.

Four years ago, Gloucester City Services introduced an initiative to support
basic skills among its predominantly manual workforce.

According to Emma Bradley, personnel officer with the section which provides
street cleansing operations, provision was originally designed and delivered
with union involvement as part of the service’s appraisal system and work
towards IIP recognition. Interestingly, policy changes meant government finance
was available to support the first year of the initiative and this current
year, but for the interim period, the organisation provided the funding
required.

Today, a dedicated classroom contains 10 computers for staff, plus access to
a tutor, offering individual support for employees who want to develop their
skills up to and beyond basic literacy and numeracy standards.

"Some of our employees left school as soon as possible and came
straight into their job," explains Bradley. "Now they want to improve
their skills. They also want to be able to help their children with homework,
so there have been benefits there too."

While Gilbert notes that trade unions do not have a substantial history of
taking a training role, it appears they are more than making up for lost time.

Susie Parsons says many union leaders will take an active part in this
year’s Learning at Work Day on May 15, taking job swaps and hoping to better
the 750,000 staff and 4,000 organisations which took part last year.

"Union activity in this area is making a difference," says Jacqui
Henderson, chief executive of Central London Learning Skills Council. "If
organisations can get union involvement in planning how training is to be
carried out and what kind of methodology would be appropriate, you can get the
right resources for the right people."

Positive outcome

The emerging message seems to be that companies should take advantage of the
unions’ passion for learning and establish good partnerships which have a
positive knock-on outcome for both the organisation and individual staff.

"We’ve always had a good relationship with the T&G, and that
relationship has improved since we created the Learning Bus," says Mick
Hodges of Metroline. "I hope it continues into the future because it
certainly seems to work. We are able to talk to the union and discuss issues
rather than just confront each other."

Land Rover is working in partnership with no less than three unions to give
its staff training opportunities. However, while the Associate Development
Scheme (ADS) has been established and run with the help of Amicus MSF, the GMB
and T&G unions, there are no Union Learning Reps involved and funding comes
entirely from the company.

ADS manager Sian Hewkin explains the scheme emerged from pay negotiations in
November 2001. While the company pays an amount per head, the programme runs
entirely independently of the company, with strict criteria that none of the
training provided should have anything to do with the employees’ work for the
company.

"The scheme is run entirely as a staff benefit," says Hewkin.
"As long as an associate wants to take a structured course which meets our
criteria, then we will encourage them to take up that learning
opportunity."

Classroom resources are provided by the company, as well as through
partnerships and links with external training organisations and local colleges.
As a result, staff can take part in learning activities ranging from Spanish
and driving lessons, to basic brick-laying and even salsa dancing.

"A lot want to learn skills such as plumbing, so they can use these
skills at home," notes Hewkin. "But the programme is also about
giving them new skills."

Not only do the unions take an active part in determining the provision of
training through their presence on the ADS committee, they also provide a
useful way of spreading awareness of the opportunities, both through shop
stewards directing associates to the ADS resource and through hosting
presentations from ADS staff at union meetings.

Key facts from the employment act 2002

Section 43 part 4 of the Employment Act 2002 provides:

– The right to reasonable paid time off for Trade Union
Learning Representatives to ensure they are adequately trained to carry out
their duties

– Reasonable paid time off to carry out duties relating to ULR
role, including training needs analysis, arranging learning for members,
promoting and informing members of training opportunities and consulting with
the employer about carrying out these activities

– The trade union must notify the employer that a member is
undergoing training to be a ULR and confirm in writing when that training is
complete

Good Relations – getting the most
for training from Union partnerships  

Break down barriers and create a good dialogue with the
union on training issues.
 
Understand and articulate the training needs of the organisation as
perceived by management and check these with the perception of union
representatives. There may be hidden training needs that union representatives
can perceive.

Respect confidentiality. If a union representative
highlights a skill shortage, do not try to identify where the shortage lies or
to address the problem through recruitment.

Clarity in organisation. Establish exactly what it
expected from union reps, their duties and responsibilities. Be clear about how
information on individual learners is going to be collected, used and stored.

Share success. 
Celebrate new qualifications or courses through joint newsletters,
meetings and even presentations.

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