Kevin Rowan, Unionlearn Director

With the unionlearn Annual Conference this July focusing on Apprenticeships as its theme, unionlearn Director Kevin Rowan discusses the ways that unions are supporting high quality schemes in the workplace, and what the plans are going forward.

A recent OECD Skills Outlook report urges the UK to ‘encourage adults to continuously develop and adapt their skills’ so that the country can benefit from participation in global markets. The trade unions know this and they also know that supporting adult learning is vital to ensure working people have a chance to progress at work, get into work and manage change in the workplace and wider society.

Trade unions know this because they actually are supporting learners at work and in the community with innovative and learner-centred approaches. Apprenticeships are very much a priority area of work for current union learning projects and they help employers and workers alike make sense of Apprentice Levy amongst other things. Unionlearn’s annual conference on the 3rd of July celebrates and highlights the union involvement by declaring that ‘Apprenticeships are Union Business’.

Apprenticeship support takes many forms whether the apprentices are young and fresh in the workplace or adults or existing staff members. Unions make headway in challenging gender stereotypes in apprentice recruitment and helping employers think of ways to remove barriers that face Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and disabled groups. Mentoring young apprentices, supporting older workers and negotiating high-quality Apprenticeships are all on trade union agenda.

To help unions tackle these issues unionlearn has produced a number of helpful resources. The Apprentice Toolkit has been recently updated and the Apprenticeship Levy – 15 useful negotiating tips spells out issues employers and unions need to address when aiming for meaningful and high-quality Apprenticeships which lead apprentices to new skills and better job roles. This is undoubtedly common ground for unions, employers and learning providers too.

Unionlearn conference audience will also see the launch of the Accessible Apprenticeships guide. It will set out the current economic situation for disabled people, the barriers disabled people face, government initiatives to support disabled workers and provides a checklist for reps. The guide also provides good practise case studies on how unions and employers can work together to support disabled apprentices.

While further education data from the DfE tells us that the number of disabled people starting an Apprenticeship has increased from 2005/06 to 2015/16 the increase has actually not mirrored the rapid growth in Apprenticeships among other groups. Considering that the proportion of apprentices classified as disabled fell from 11 per cent to 9.9 per cent during this period it is obvious that employers and unions have a lot of work to do to make sure Apprenticeships are truly accessible.

The OECD 2017 report also mentions that the UK needs to ‘achieve more equity in learning outcomes’. The OECD cites several possible options on achieving more even skills dispersion between individuals, such as the accessibility and quality of work-based learning and training in strengthening links with industry and encouraging ‘active and ongoing engagement of employers and unions at all levels’. Unions have a wealth of experience and knowledge when learner engagement and motivations is concerned which is worth tapping into.

This can only happen if a wide range of stakeholders come together. The first step should be a close look at unionlearn’s Charter for Apprenticeships and consider what the ingredients of high-quality Apprenticeships are.

The Charter highlights that an Apprenticeship should:

  • be a job with a productive purpose
  • be paid a fair rate
  • ensure high quality training and clear individual development
  • involve the trade union at every level of the programme
  • ensure apprentices have regular access to, and support from, trade unions
  • be accessible to, and achievable by all
  • be part of, and contribute to, a Healthy and Safe environment
  • be a commitment from the employer to complement the workforce, not supplement it.

There is a good chance that everyone benefits and learns being part of the triangle of trade unions, employers and apprentices when it is done with true engagement and support.

Kevin Rowan, Unionlearn Director

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