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Online learning is helping Remploy fulfil its remit of expanding employment opportunities for the disabled – and it’s paying off with direct business benefits

Training professionals often have to deal with geographically dispersed workforces and the needs of different market sectors but few face the challenge on the same scale as Remploy. The organisation is spread across 81 sites in the UK and produces everything from automotive parts to high-quality furniture, through to household chemicals.

Remploy was set up by the post-war Government in 1947 with a remit to expand the employment opportunities for individuals with mental, emotional and physical disabilities. It has come a long way in that time and currently numbers half of the FTSE 100 companies on its client list.

Remploy currently helps around 2,000 people get into mainstream employment each year, but the Government has set it challenging targets when it comes to moving its employees into mainstream employment, increasing its throughput so that more of the country’s estimated 750,000 disabled people can benefit from the organisation’s support.

Two years ago, it launched a learning strategy to develop both the organisation and the individual employee, of which it has more than 6,000. It also supports a further 4,500 disabled people in partnership with employers such as Asda, Tesco and Sainbury’s.

“It’s about giving our people improved status and confidence so that they can have more control over their career paths,” says Gareth Parry, Remploy’s learning resources manager. “And there are natural benefits for the business from that approach – we get a higher-skilled and better-motivated workforce with increased capability for profitability.”

The backbone of Remploy’s learning strategy is its network of learning centres, set up at each of its 81 sites, which offer employees access to a range of online courses via Learndirect. Also key to the organisation’s approach is forming a partnership with a local college which enables the centres to deliver numeracy and literacy classes as a high proportion of Remploy’s employees have basic skills needs.

“We were looking for a range of learning solutions to suit individuals’ preferred learning styles and the business need. So we offer job-related training on the shopfloor, for instance, and initial classroom tuition in basic skills and computer-based learning via Learndirect,” says Parry. “We’d heard about learndirect and thought it sounded just what we needed. Once we’d talked it through, we decided to integrate it into our learning strategy.”

He goes on to explain that many need the basic skills classes before they move on to the online courses.

“It’s a blended solution. We engage them in the classroom and they make the transition from tutor-led to the learndirect courses.”

Launched by the government-funded University for Industry in the year 2000, Learndirect developed a package that would meet Remploy’s needs and also suggested it formed another partnership, this time with the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta) to manage the administrative side of the programme. The basis for this was that the majority of Remploy’s work was grounded in engineering and Semta already had an established network of Engineering Link centres delivering learning that could form a support hub. Semta now provides the Learndirect support for regional Remploy learning centres.

With an outline model agreed, the various parties worked towards roll-out beginning with Remploy attending workshops facilitated by management consultancy KPMG that were designed to identify the required coursework. Other parties included learning provider Academee, which was brought in to tailor the content for the visually impaired.

Remploy has made a conscious effort to create time for learning and pledges that 5 per cent of every employee’s time at work can be devoted to learning, whether it be to develop work skills or to follow personal interests.

“Allowing our people to learn during their work time has led to a natural enthusiasm for learning to the point where people are now opting to learn outside of work too,” says Parry.

“We noticed that after Christmas a lot of people signed up for the digital camera course, which is fine. What we’d like to do is then look at how we can use such skills in the workplace. Our approach is to engage the learner with the learning and then make a link to the workplace that will benefit the business.”

A big surprise for Parry and his team was that a principal motivating factor to do the courses was the opportunity it gave the individual to use a computer.

“There was a latent demand to learn about computers that we hadn’t anticipated,” he says. “And one of the reasons was that their sons and daughters were using them and getting skills that they didn’t have themselves – so there was almost an envy factor.”

The IT skills base that the learning is helping to build is enabling Remploy to move into its next phase, which will see it develop a broader e-learning strategy. This is likely to include online induction modules.

“A few years ago, we couldn’t have considered such an e-learning strategy because employees didn’t have the necessary computing skills. But now we can,” says Parry.

Case study
Remploy Birmingham

What it does: Supplies components to the automotive trade. Working on the ‘Lean Manufacturing’ model, training is crucial if it is to maintain its competitive edge. It has won work from other suppliers because of its quality

No in workforce: More than 140

Learndirect courses include: 5S and Kaizen, which focus on the Japanese systems of production

Remploy says: “No course is compulsory, but those who are hungry for it can have as much learning as they like – not just ways of operating such as Kaizen, but anything that appeals to them such as how to surf the internet,” says Rob Bradley, union learning representative.

“We have a number of deaf operators, one of whom is particularly good on the computer. We want him to train the others. Another has built a web page and can pass on that expertise to colleagues, perhaps eventually developing a web-based newsletter.”

Case study
Remploy Southampton

What it does: Manufactures cables and harness electronics for customers across the industry, which demands a high-level of technical skills.

No in workforce: 50

Learndirect courses include: Skills for Life, such as ‘Cash Crescent’, which teaches financial skills and ‘Checkpoint’, which looks at grammar.

Remploy says: “There’s been a huge difference in people. They have a lot more confidence. Some people have never had so much time, attention – and value – given to them,” says team leader Wendy Farmer.

“For many, their home life is unbelievably tough; here, they have a chance to socialise and to discover that they do have the capacity to learn.”

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