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Home > News > April 2004 > 28-Apr-2004

Union learning reps train 25,000 in their first year

In the year since union learning reps were given new legal rights to promote learning at work, they have encouraged 25,000 of their workmates to try their hand at some form of workplace learning. The figures were announced by the TUC yesterday as it published two new reports championing the learning contribution that unions are making in workplaces across the UK.

One of the reports, ‘Trade union learning representatives’, produced by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development with the Learning and Skills Council and the TUC, says that union learning reps are working well with employers to increase learning take-up in many organisations.

It says that workers in junior positions, many of whom tend to be suspicious of learning and training initiatives, are gaining the most – to the advantage of individual and employer alike. For many employees, learning is strongly associated with their schooldays, and is not an experience most want to repeat willingly. With a mixture of support and encouragement, learning reps are showing that they can overcome suspicions and persuade workers to go on courses that will help enhance their own skills and their effectiveness at work.

The other report - ‘New faces’ - contains the results of a TUC survey of learning reps conducted last year, which reveals that women appear to be particularly attracted to the new learning roles. Just over one in four (28 per cent) of learning reps are new to union activities, and almost two-thirds of these (59 per cent) are women who have never before been active in a union.

There are currently around over 7,000 union learning reps active across the UK, and such is the level of interest that the TUC believes it is well on-course to achieve its target of 22,000 trained learning reps by the end of the decade.

The public/private split of union learning reps is fairly evenly matched, with 52 per cent in the public and 47 per cent of reps in the private sectors. Over half the reps work in large organisations and businesses (52 per cent), with a considerable number employed in firms with less than 250 employees.

Companies who reach formal learning agreements with unions in their workplaces are usually those employers most likely to be taking employee learning seriously, says the TUC. Over half the learning reps in the survey (51 per cent) reported such an agreement where they work.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: “Because of their unique position in the workplace, union learning reps are perfectly placed to encourage both their bosses and their colleagues to take learning at work seriously. In the last twelve months, with their role now backed by the law, learning reps are going from strength to strength and bringing learning to those parts of the workforce who traditionally missed out.”

Victoria Gill, Learning, Training and Development Adviser at the CIPD, said: “Creating a learning culture within organisations requires a partnership between employers and employees. Learning is to everyone’s advantage – boosting opportunities for individuals and generating returns for employers alike. But all too often employees on the front line view learning, training and development initiatives with suspicion. The success of legislation to assist union learning representatives has been the increased involvement of employees at all grades within organisations in learning opportunities.”

The following case studies illustrate the kind of encouragement and support that union learning reps are giving their colleagues:

* Construction workers on one of Britain’s biggest building sites are becoming computer literate and keeping their health and safety knowledge up to date with the help of learning reps from construction union UCATT. In a learning centre based in a portakabin at the foot of Canary Wharf Tower, the reps are helping workers from all over the 86-acre site get to grips with computers and brush up on their health and safety knowledge. It also offers the many migrant workers from Eastern Europe the chance to improve their English - vital in a workplace where clear communication can mean the difference between life and death. Lead project worker Sean Andrew says: "The construction industry at Canary Wharf has all the barriers to learning - a transient workforce; a high level of ethnic minorities with English language needs; lots of support needed for learners; lack of recognition by supervisory staff of the need for their operatives to train; and difficulty in getting paid release to do it. But because we're showing that the learning centre works and such a lot of people are using it, we've got a queue a mile long for our training."

* INA Bearing Company Limited is a subsidiary of a privately owned German engineering group. At its UK manufacturing facility in Llanelli, it employs 360 people. In response to increased competition from low-labour-cost countries, the last three years have seen a focus on continuous improvement and a sustained attempt to improve the skills of the workforce. The union involvement in learning, and the establishment of union learning representatives, has been welcomed by management and personnel staff. Adrian Roberts, Personnel Manager, INA Bearing Company Limited, says: “We’re trying to remove every barrier and give every opportunity for learning. For INA the new reps are key allies in the promotion of learning and lifelong learning on the shop floor.” INA have worked closely with the representatives and the union to create a learning agreement. This close collaboration has meant that INA programmes like learndirect are no longer seen just as management initiatives. Managers also make information freely available on its training plan and budget. This creates an environment of trust and openness, and ensures that everyone works together in partnership. David Preece, Amicus union learning representative says: “We know what the production targets are and we know the business, but we also understand the pressures of shift- working and what people on the shop floor want when it comes to training.”

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