One in three of the UK’s top board directors say skills shortages are the
most important problem facing their company. That statistic alone is enough to
convince us all that the Government should be applauded for its £20m investment
in promoting union learning representatives in the workplace.
But as is often the case with the DTI, it is rushing into implementation
later this year without the practical guidance to support employers (see page
1). Many firms are justifiably concerned about the role of union learning reps
in relation to existing company training departments.
What remit will they have and how broad will their influence be? Will they
concentrate on improving basic writing and numeracy among workers or go further
than that? Can they commission training and who pays if they do?
Any initiative aimed at motivating more adults to learn is a good one and
trade unions have a big role to play in making training a top priority. But
such schemes will duplicate effort and undermine employers if they are not
introduced properly. Partnership is an over-used term, but in this instance it
really is essential. The Government, employers and the unions should be pulling
together to make this effective by setting up pilots to show what can be done
and sharing best practice.
Improving skills is good for business and the workforce, but UK
organisations have a mountain to climb: one in five adults do not have the
literacy or numeracy skills of secondary school starters; French and German
workers are better educated; and the Government estimates that, by 2010, 70 per
cent of new jobs in the UK economy will need degree-level skills. Addressing
this with some urgency is crucial.
Few employers have made any specific provision for union learning
representatives, yet the majority agree that the principle is a sound one. With
just months to go before learning reps gain statutory powers, employers need
step-by-step guidance now – future prosperity depends on it.
By Jane King is editor of Personnel Today