Highlands in the stream

In Britain’s most sparsely populated region, classroom training is something of a luxury. So e-learning should be just the thing to raise local skill levels.

The Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) LearningWorks website wants to be more than a single access point for learning and skills opportunities for local businesses. It aims to help put skills at the heart of economic development in a geographically diverse region that is home to 19,000 businesses and 435,000 people.

“We want to make skills central so that production will increase, incomes will go up and the area will become a quality place to live,” explains Graham Young, LearningWorks manager at the HIE main office in Inverness.

Launched just 18 months ago, the website gets about 22,000 hits per month. Current course listings range from team-based supervisory skills taking place on the north-west coast in Lochinver project management in Scotland’s most northerly town of Thurso and elementary health and safety even further north on the islands of Shetland.

“We didn’t want businesses to have to send people out of the region to find training,” says Young. “The site allows them to navigate what is available and we also wanted to show that there was more bite-size training available that may be more appropriate for them.”

The Highlands and Islands area occupies 51% of the land mass of Scotland, but is home to only 11% of the population. Inherent difficulties for employers include a relatively small talent pool when it comes to recruitment, while remote locations can make external training impractical.

“We do have a problem recruiting, and high property prices in this area mean young people tend to move out,” says Dorothy Pearson, managing partner of the popular Plockton Hotel on the Isle of Skye (see case study, below). Because of this, Pearson places a great deal of importance on training as a vehicle to aid retention. “Over the years, training has boosted our profits as our staff turnover has been low. Customers who return time after time look forward to seeing the same faces each year,” she says.

Loch Fyne Oysters is another employer which uses the LearningWorks site. Based in Argyll, the company specialises in producing and supplying fresh and smoked seafood, shellfish, meat and game to customers around the world. It is owned and run by its staff and its core workforce of 100 rises to 140 in the summer. They include oyster farmers and fish filleters, and logistics, retail and management staff.

“Being in the food industry means there is a major need for training and courses,” says Anne Stewart, HR officer. “At the moment, many of the courses on the site are too far north for us, so I definitely think e-learning will be of use. But I also find the reports and industry-specific information really useful.”

Young believes that companies such as fish farmers, which tend to use high-tech equipment, are well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities of e-learning.

“They already have the computer equipment and could do an e-learning module when they’re less busy,” he says. “A major aim of LearningWorks is to increase the number and range of e-learning opportunities on the site.”

As well as individual learners and businesses, the site is also proving useful for training professionals. It has a dedicated Learning Centre Zone that allows staff and associates from the Highlands and Islands network of Learning Centres to share skills and explore new ideas.

“This is where I get the biggest benefit from the site,” says Jenny Devlin, head of Aviemore-based training provider Jenny Devlin Associates. “I use it for posting questions and getting advice.”

Future plans for the site include staging a number of virtual conferences on specific topics and issues that can be broadcast across the region, in the hope that these will stimulate further discussion via the website.

“We want to hear more from employers and get them talking about serious skills issues,” says Young. “LearningWorks is a huge technological tool, and we want to continue to develop it to ensure it provides a leading edge resource which helps businesses in the region become more competitive and profitable.”

Case study: Plockton Hotel

Since opening in 1991, the family-run Plockton Hotel in Skye has seen its turnover double over the past seven years, and has extended its opening season in response to a steep rise in visitors in the past year.

Managing partner Dorothy Pearson attributes much of its success to its high-quality service. With considerable return trade generated through word-of-mouth, she also places a great deal of importance on training as a way of ensuring consistency and continuity, and nurturing in-house talent.

“A former member of the kitchen staff has returned to the hotel as a graduate and I’ve encouraged him to go into management,” she says. “It’s important that we provide the right training. I’ll be looking at the IT and management courses offered by e-learning from the LearningWorks site. It will be good for his CV and for us.

“Developing the skills of our staff not only benefits us as a business by helping to push our customer levels further, but it also satisfies our staff’s ambitions.”

She adds that after several years’ investment in basic training, many staff are moving on to access more advanced training and refresher courses, for which she will use the site. “It’s vital that businesses look ahead and ensure that tomorrow’s workforce has the right training to do the jobs required as competition for available [staff] in the Highlands and Islands is getting increasingly fierce.”

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