Experts estimate that UK industry loses up to £5bn yearly due to skills shortages among the workforce, money that could be saved through targeted, effective training.
Unions, working with the support of the Learning and Skills Council (the organisation that enables skills development in England) and the TUC (who are at the forefront of union-led advice and guidance) are playing a key role in addressing this issue through the work of the Union Learning Fund (ULF).
The ULF supports unions in partnership projects to develop work-based learning opportunities for employees.
The fund is focused on fighting against the skills shortages such as basic skills needs in literacy and numeracy, which have such a dramatic effect on UK productivity.
In the six years since its creation in 1998, the ULF has gained considerable ground in the fight against skills shortages.
The fund has helped support and train the ever-growing army of over 10,000 union learning representatives whose main function is to advise union members about training and educational development.
These representatives have in turn helped 58,000 people to develop new skills or update existing ones, whether reading or writing, basic numeracy, computer skills or continuing professional development.
The programme has been so successful that Education Secretary Charles Clarke has increased the programme’s funding from £2m in its inception to £14.4m for next year, known as Round 8, an increase of 600 per cent.
This brings total ULF projects to over 450, and the number is constantly growing.
The benefits of this growing number of ULF projects are considerable. Representatives open up barriers to learning, providing information, identifying skills gaps in the workplace and facilitating access to learning centres.
By staying close to their members, they have a better understanding of which employees need training and the best way to approach them without seeming too intrusive, patronising or heavy handed.
Representatives can also help those who might normally miss out on existing opportunities for training and development, guiding them towards courses that are best suited to their needs and clarifying the maze of qualifications available to them.
For the many companies working with the unions, the benefits have been significant.
Over 600 workers at the Parcelforce Worldwide distribution hubs in Coventry have access to a learning centre, thanks to the partnership between the Communications Workers Union, Parcelforce and Solihull College.
The centre is helping the company support its policy of promotion. It is also improving staff retention, as investment in staff training through the learning centre is making the hubs a great place to work.
The project at Northumberland Fire Service is another example of the benefits of the ULF and union learning representatives to employers. The project to establish ICT within the fire service has increased levels of competence in the workplace, allowing the delivery of service to be improved.
The growing demand for ICT courses and the project’s achievements have led to the establishment of a new learning centre in Durham Fire Station thanks to further support from the ULF.
The proposed creation of a union academy will provide a major boost to the training offered by unions. Owned and run by the unions, it will offer training for workers commissioned from teachers and lecturers at colleges and universities.
This will allow them to do short courses or lengthier part-time studies, which would count towards existing qualifications.
For employers and their HR managers, the ULF offers the opportunity to benefit from the unions’ assistance and their experience.