From education to employment

Why workplace learning can be the best learning

Tough times for adult learners, as the title of Niace’s survey suggests, makes for sober reading, with its finding that the number of adults who have taken part in learning over the past three years has fallen from 43 per cent to 39 per cent.

Participation among men is at an all-time low and the number of the least skilled and those outside the labour market in learning has also dropped. But one important finding stands out: 28 per cent of learners, the highest proportion, are learning through work. This is important, because as the majority of the 2020 workforce has already left formal education and, as the post-war baby boomers retire, there will be a large skills gap to be filled and too few young people to fill it.

Meanwhile, says the report, British industry and commerce invest less in its people than comparable OECD countries. So amongst this gloom and doom, it was heart-lifting to read a new report, to be published this month, from the London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Institute which showcases the success that Union Learning Fund projects, and union-led learning, are having among the most disadvantaged and those older workers who thought they would never have a second chance.

Learning Journeys: trade union learners in their own words, which involved in-depth interviews with a range of learners, found that union-led learning was successful because union learning reps (ULRs) were able to help their colleagues get over their lack of confidence. Plus, the model of learning – either in workplace learning centres or by access to on-line courses – was far removed from their bad memories of school. As one civil servant and member of PCS said: “It’s a brilliant way to learn, it’s not about sitting in a room and being lectured at … you are encouraging people to work together and find out information for themselves.”

ULRs make a special effort to make the learning centres or learning areas as informal and welcoming as possible and, in turn, the report’s authors found that participation encouraged “democratic engagement at the workplace and also in the wider community”. At one Royal Mail depot, learners said that coming together to do courses or learning had broken down barriers between “ethnic cliques” among the workers.

Of those interviewed, some felt their poor education meant missing out on promotion and opportunities at work, others realised that their skills needed updating and fear of redundancy was a spur, but for others it was the desire to be able to help their children with homework.

ULRs were acknowledged as important in helping those with a new taste for learning to continue on to other courses. However, there were reports of a “learning ceiling” that made it difficult for them to get access to higher level learning at work. There was concern that the recession had led to employers being more reluctant to grant time off to train. If this is the case, then I suggest they (and particularly middle-management) read this report which provides ample evidence of why workplace learning is so vital.

One GMB member summed it up for me: “Union learning set me on this journey. It has made me a more confident person and I feel more secure in my capabilities. I’m probably more confident in my role at work, but I feel my training has also made me a more confident person in life.”

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

Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

Welcoming Adult Learners’ Week

A climate for change?

Tax relief not reaching most effective work-related courses

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