Ask any employee about barriers to learning, and they will cite a range of factors – anything from childcare responsibilities to long working hours and stress. But a recent survey by the TUC found that three in five employees believe help and advice from a work colleague with special knowledge of training would encourage them to take up learning opportunities.
Union learning representatives fulfil that role, and the government – as detailed in its White Paper on adult skills, published in the spring – wants to enhance the initiative even further. In many cases, union learning representatives are working in partnership with employers, with support from the Union Learning Fund, to set up on-site learning centres for employees.
We ask what difference learning representatives can make to workplace learning.
General secretary, TUC
The new TUC training at work survey gives a massive vote of confidence to union learning reps and strengthens the argument for paid time off for employees to study, with three-quarters of workers saying this would give them the boost they need to train.
The role the reps play in helping people to find a course that suits them and overcoming any nerves about heading back into a learning environment should never be underestimated.
However, their hard work should not be used as an excuse for employers to neglect their responsibilities to provide all their staff with the necessary work-related training. The employer should be looking to work with representatives to secure learning agreements that benefit all members of staff.
Adviser, learning, training and development, CIPD
The union learning rep has the advantage of being seen as ‘one of them’, and can present learning opportunities in an impartial way. A lot of their work is based on personal and life-long learning, but they have also become involved in workplace learning, so they see their remit as learning across the board. A lot of organisations have set up agreements with their reps. It doesn’t need to be formal – the main thing is the rep is an ally in promoting a learning and development culture.
HR director, VT Shipbuilding
Our learning centre has been going for nearly four years, and it has given opportunities to people who are academically unqualified. We have been very pleased with it, and have put about 450 people through it. The good thing about it is that staff feel there’s no manager or foreman watching over them. If they make mistakes, that’s fine – they are with their colleagues. When many people first went to the learning centre, they had not been around computers before, and some of our employees cannot read and write. One of the guys from our yard is now reading books at home, and he had never done that before. And we are getting better-educated, more confident staff.
Senior adviser on policy and skills, CBI
Union learning representatives have done very well in the area of basic literacy and numeracy in getting away from the stigma associated with those deficiencies, and getting staff to speak up if they have a problem. In most cases, our members have found the partnership to work quite well. Reps should not be there to boost union membership – they should be there to support learning and development in their organisation.
Learning manager, HM Revenue & Customs
Learning representatives work closely with our own HMRC learning team to help raise the profile of the importance of learning, and in particular, to address basic skills gaps. We work in partnership with them to identify new areas where skills gaps occur, and then report our findings back to our learning and development teams to plug the learning gap.
Their work has been useful in flagging up other opportunities available outside the department’s regular syllabus. They help to point people in the direction of learning in areas that may not necessarily relate to their everyday work, which has a positive knock-on effect for learning in the workplace.
Director, learning and development, Royal Mail
Learning centres such as the one at Mount Pleasant in central London, have been hugely successful at the Royal Mail. The initial launch resulted in more than 500 applications from a workforce of 2,500.
Once a joint steering committee has been set up, including local managers and union learning reps, the next step is to conduct a learning needs survey to identify the key areas of interest. IT courses are usually the most popular. Interest in literacy and numeracy or English for speakers of other languages normally runs at about 20%, and a sizeable group showing interest in languages such as French and Spanish.
For Royal Mail to continuously imp-rove its service, our people need to learn all the time. Learning centres and union learning reps, are important ways to achieve this.
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