From education to employment

Union-led learning produces results

The largest ever survey of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation, published last week by Leeds University’s Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change has found hard evidence of the positive effect that union-led learning has had on the workforce since the organisation was set up 12 years ago.

Most positive has been the response of the 415 employers surveyed, with more than half of them (55 per cent) saying that their employees have improved their qualifications, thanks to union learning activities. As a result, nine out of ten employers state that they will continue to be involved with union learning activities, with two-thirds saying there was a benefit to the organisation and eight in ten saying there was a benefit to individuals.

Unionlearn’s strength has been to use union learning reps to act as advocates, encouraging and advising their colleagues on the advantages of improving their skills. This has led to, according to more than half of the employers surveyed, basic skills gaps being addressed in their workplace. Union learning has also increased learning among those with high level skills by 28 per cent.

What is equally encouraging has been the positive knock-on effect on employer-employee relations and on morale and health and safety in the workplace. Union learning activity has, in 46 per cent of organisations, increased consultation on learning and training issues.

The money that comes with Union Learning Fund projects is obviously attractive to employers. Interestingly, it has encouraged four out of ten employers to make their own financial contribution (the average investment was £23,000). Employers were much more likely to provide contributions in kind, for example equipment, office space and time off for reps and employees. Bombardier Transportation, in the East Midlands, calculated that its in-kind contributions amounted to £80,000 a year.

What has been most encouraging for me as director of unionlearn, has been the report’s finding that our work has placed the learning and skills agenda as a core activity for unions –strategically and practically. Unions are working at a local level with employers and FE colleges to identify skills gaps and research shows that they can shape government policy.

The reports notes the success of unionlearn in meeting, and in some cases exceeding, its targets in the number of ULRs that it has trained (more than 23,000), the number of Skills for Life courses (30,000) and the number of learners (250,000 per year). The report shows that unionlearn’s reach is across all sectors, private and public, and across the full range of British industry. Nine out of 10 projects were open to all employees, not just union members. And unions are meeting the demand for learning in at least two-thirds of cases.

So, there is a lot to be proud about in the past 12 years. But the report also indicates that there is more work to be done to build upon the solid foundations that have been laid down. A powerful message that comes across in the report is the importance of learning agreements. Where learning agreements have been signed, the learning experience and the benefits to the organisation have been the greatest. They are also vital to the sustainability of the union-learning model.

One of the main barriers has been the hurdle of securing time off for staff to take part in learning; more work needs to be done here in getting the message across to employers. There is also the issue of funding. While four in ten employers state that learning activities would continue without external funding, more than a quarter (28 per cent) disagreed.

As skills become ever more important, unions will be working at a local level with employers to identify and meet skills gaps and challenge poor employers to match the best.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and training organisation


Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

Employees’ right to take time off to train 

NEET figure still too high

Apprenticeships are back in fashion

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