Union learning reps: 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. By Simon Kent

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 out of 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.


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