Liz Smith, director of unionlearn

There’s good news and there’s bad news. A recent survey conducted by Business Smart International found that over half the managers surveyed (51%) expect to reduce off-site training.

However, three-quarters say they will "maintain or increase" their commitment to on-site training. And there is evidence to show that in these tough economic times, some employers are learning the lessons of previous recessions and offering opportunities to re-skill, in preparation for better years.

As the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee said last week, "re-skilling rather than up-skilling should be the priority as redundancies force people to move to other sectors".


The TUC and unionlearn believe that it is not just workers already on notice of redundancy who need speedy access to training, but those at risk too. For this group, acquiring new skills may mean they can hold onto their job or move speedily into another one if redundancies do happen.

We have seen the skills agenda become increasingly more important over the past years and the Committee recommended that “government focus should be on tackling skills shortages and approaching skills as part of wider national economic development planning”. As always, the key is providing a flexible workforce to weather the downturn. I was also encouraged and proud to see that the Committee urged the Government to recognise the role of trade unions and union learning representatives.

But it’s not just the Committee that has recognized the vital role of union learning reps, as Hayley Pickles found out when she dropped into Number Ten last month. Hayley, an USDAW ULR employed by Tesco in Scarborough, joined Gordon Brown to launch the Government's new White Paper on social mobility entitled 'New Opportunities: Fair Chances for the Future' and she spoke to the Prime Minister on a one-to-one level. They discussed the benefits of education and training for low-skilled and low-paid employees. And Hayley quizzed the PM on what the policy would do for people like her, as part of a group helping to promote social mobility.

Hayley was chosen for her outstanding work on the learning front, which involves running courses for retail workers from 16 supermarkets and other retailers in Scarborough. She has been a senior ULR since 2001 and is responsible for a variety of courses as well as for helping many hundreds of learners complete them successfully. Hayley is a shining example of someone who understands the importance of learning to aid social mobility, not only for herself, but for others as well. She is also clear how learning new skills can help people achieve their ambitions and dreams.

ULRs were also not only making their presence felt in Parliament and at Number Ten, but also in Buckingham Palace. The New Year’s Honours List saw an MBE for Tom O’Callaghan, a senior ULR at Metroline. Tom has worked tirelessly over the years to provide Metroline’s staff with learning opportunities in garages all over London. With a double decker bus kitted out with computers, he and the team ensure that bus drivers, mechanics and other staff, as well as their families, can learn at their leisure. Last year the bus went to Downing Street and Metroline ULRs and learners met the PM. The MBE was a fantastic reward for Tom, but also recognizes the successful partnership between Metroline and Unite the Union, which has benefited hundreds of learners.

Meanwhile Felicity Mendelson, Senior Learning and Development Officer at Newcastle City Council, received her MBE from the Prince of Wales at an investiture in Buckingham Palace at the end of last year. Felicity, who has also been honoured for her work with trade unions, has worked for the city council for 32 years and is a UNISON ULR. She was also one of the first people in the North East to attend a ULR course in 1999.

She said: "I'm really honoured to get this award. I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to become a ULR myself and to work with so many people in the Council and in the trade unions who have the same enthusiasm about learning that I do."

So it’s clear that ULRs are playing an important role at many levels and their influence is not confined to workplaces, unions or learning centres, but can reach the very highest levels.

Liz Smith, director of unionlearn


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