Learning reaches new heights

National Grid is piloting the Government’s new Individual Learning Accounts
scheme but what’s really in it for employers? By Stephanie Sparrow

Individual Learning Accounts are coming. At long last, some might say. For
although further details of ILAs are expected this month and a national
roll-out is forecast for September, their relevance and benefit to employers
remains unclear.

The pilots over the last year have seen ILAs used in many different guises
from outplacement tools to community initiatives. At The Millennium Dome in
Greenwich, for example, ILAs are to be used to help 700 staff add a new skill
to their portfolio in readiness for their inevitable redundancy at the end of
2000.

An outer London school received funding to use ILAs as a carrot to entice
parents into its IT suite after hours and so boost school funds.

Learner choice

While the Government’s key aim seems to be to use them as a way of boosting
the country’s IT skills, the Tecs’ pilot projects have been using ILAs opening
up learner choice in everything from languages to photography.

Will projects such as these really make a difference to an employees’
contribution in the workplace or do they simply boost the "feel-good
factor"? Are they just Edaps by another name?

The notion of ILAs was first mooted in The Learning Age green paper in 1998
and has since been piloted and tinkered with by the Tecs.

In March last year Chancellor Gordon Brown declared the intention of
introducing cut-price technology courses for people who take up ILAs and said
that employers would eventually be able to contribute tax-free to the accounts
when the legislation is settled.

In April 1999 Tecs distributed ILA vouchers, in the form of gift tokens for
learning, to 100,000 people in regional trials.

The current intention is that the scheme will be extended nationally with a
target of 1 million account holders by 2002.

And now, perhaps a little late in the day, ILAs are being adopted by a clutch
of employers recruited by The Campaign for Learning which is advising the DfEE
on the scheme and is planning a major conference to update employers on the
initiative in June.

Promoting the idea

"Employers are seen as key to promoting the idea," says Campaign
for Learning chief executive Bill Lucas, who adds that ILAs should not be
confused with similar employer initiatives of previous decades.

"Edaps were part of the negotiating mechanism," he says.
"These are a way of developing people."

Leading the way with the employer pilot group is National Grid which is
trialling the idea on 400 employees in its Yorkshire and North East region.

The results of the National Grid initiative and the reactions of employees
will be fed back to the Campaign for Learning to develop "best practice
models".

National Grid is asking employees to say what difference learning is making
to them and is creating a database of the learning activities undertaken and
the methods used.

Cross-functional

The company pulled out all the stops to launch its pilot at the beginning of
March. A cross-functional project group appointed a specialist communications
company to stage a sophisticated marketing campaign around its regional head
offices in Leeds, backed up by personal invitations posted to 400 employees’
homes.

The company then staged a week-long training exhibition where local colleges
set out their wares, from reflexology to languages and computing.

National Grid’s commitment to the scheme is high. Not only will it foot the
bill for the project, but that sum will be in addition to its existing training
spend.

Head of HR Jim Harris believes that the scheme will help develop a learning
culture at National Grid.

Thirst for learning

"The idea is to re-ignite the thirst for learning and by introducing
employees to many different courses, help create a positive attitude to
learning. A lot of our people left school at 16 or 18 and we want to get them
kick-started in learning again," he says.

Harris wants people to grow with the company and equates learning, no matter
what the subject, with energy and enthusiasm.

In addition there could be spin-off benefits directly into the workplace as
National Grid is growing rapidly through an overseas acquisition programme, so
anyone who develops a foreign language or demonstrates an ability to learn
languages quickly will be well-placed.

He is also hoping to heal old wounds. In the transition from state-owned
company to privatised one with purchases in Brazil and Poland, National Grid
shed 3,000 people in 10 years and Harris has been keeping a close eye on the
cultural effects.

"In 1996 we had a culture we didn’t want. By 1998 we were closer to a
culture we wanted and we are getting there. It sounds intangible but we will
know when it’s right," he says.

But if ILAs have a role in promoting cultural change does this mean that
their main benefit is not as a training tool but as a bonus for the feelgood
factor?

Benefits package

Writing for Training magazine last November, Lucas at the Campaign for
Learning wrote that learning opportunities should become part of the benefits
package.

"Learning needs to sit alongside cars, healthcare, pensions, shares and
dentistry as an important part of the benefit package," he wrote.

"The campaign’s most recent Mori poll showed that 77 per cent of us
would prefer to work for an organisation which supports our learning rather
than one which pays us large salary rises.

"The Government’s Individual Learning Accounts initiative is set to
revolutionise this area, and training and development people would do well to
be among the early pioneers."

National Grid seems to be of the same mind, positioning ILAs alongside,
rather than within, its mainstream training activities. Harris sees established
initiatives such as personal development plans running in parallel.

"We would place the scheme with our Valuing You initiative," adds
National Grid company learning manager Sonja Stockton.

"This sought to recognise needs and support outside the pay packet and
includes Bupa and our welfare careline. This is where we would see the ILAs
sitting, as well as transferring new skills back into the workplace."

Feedback

National Grid will be feeding back results from the pilot every two months. But
so far, despite the company’s internal marketing, take-up has been slow.

Even though 90 per cent of employees said that they would be interested in
opening an account, only 21 people actually registered for a course within the
first fortnight.

Stockton cautions against reading too much into this, and thinks that many
people are waiting for the new college term which begins after Easter.

But it does beg the question of whether we all like the idea of learning
something new but never quite get round to it – like the syndrome of evening
classes which few people sustain after the initial enthusiasm.

So, as other employers will be asked to sit up and take notice will the
concept make a difference to them? And if an ILA is really a contract between
the individual and the Government, as the DfEE literature implies, why do
employers need be involved anyway?

Exploitation

One of the Tecs which has been trialling the ILA idea found that employers
misunderstood the concept, some even wanted to exploit it.

A Tec manager, who does not want to be named, explains, "Some companies
thought, ‘Here’s a brilliant pot of money to save our budget’," he says.
"They thought that they could tell their employees to approach us for
management or health and safety training, and that we could pay for this.

Others didn’t want to promote the idea to all their staff. They wanted to
promote it to managers only, whereas we were interested in covering groups such
as supervisors and women returners."

But he remains optimistic about the relevance to employers.

"Big companies could get a benefit out of it by looking at their
training plans and what an individual wants to do and finding a way for them to
complement each other," he says.

What is an ILA?

The purpose of Individual Learning Accounts is to help people in work pay
for learning as part of their personal development.

The precise model is expected to be unveiled this spring and start in
September and will probably take the form of an "account with
Government" says the DfEE.

Anyone aged 19 or over will be able to open an account through a variety of
ways including the Internet and telephone services.

The individual will open an account by contributing £25 as evidence of their
commitment to learning. The first million people to open an ILA will receive a
£150 top-up from the Government.

According to a DfEE newsletter the learner will receive an account card,
administered by a new public/private sector partnership, which will act as a
membership token and discount card on learning-related products such as books
and stationery.

An annual statement or "learning record" will summarise the
learning undertaken by an individual. "This record could be used by
members to demonstrate commitment to personal development", says the DfEE.
"We hope that it will be nationally recognised by employers," it
says, but no further details are available at present.

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