Time off for learning can be just as refreshing as a holiday and is not just a boon to the employee - it can also directly help productivity.

So why is it that so many employers seem reluctant to give their staff paid time off for learning and training? If anything it is in their interest to have workers willing to improve their education and learn the skills required as an industry or organisation develops.

But there are still too many UK employers who spend little or nothing on training; who operate within a narrow, controlling, short-term mind-set which will simply not survive in tomorrow’s knowledge economy. And that is why we have to encourage a more generous attitude to training that does not begrudge and question the value of qualification, but looks positively at how work can be made more interesting and valuable - so as to make the best use of the higher skills and expectations which employees are increasingly bringing to their work.

Learning Through Life, an independent report on lifelong learning, discovered that on average more than £800 is spent on training for each 18 to 24 year old. Those aged between 25 and 50 received £300 and 50-to-75 year olds received just £86. The report and previous reports by the intergovernmental thinktank, the OECD found that the people, besides the young, who benefit from workplace training are those already advantaged and highly educated. And a 2006 survey of union reps by unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation, reported that 46 per cent blamed lack of paid time off as a barrier to training, with long working hours being cited as another major obstacle.

It is a patent nonsense that people’s educational development should end on the day they leave the school or college gate for the last time. You would think that it would be unnecessary to have to argue that employers should be responsible for the development of the workforce for the benefit of the economy. But in the neo-liberal climate of the 1980s and 1990s there was little appetite among governments for a statutory right to paid time off for training.

Paradoxically the current recession may have opened new space for innovation in this area. Employers and unions have been keen to work out deals in order to preserve jobs during the downturn by offering different working patterns. This time should be used productively. It is a great opportunity for workers to use this down-time to improve their knowledge, be it basic literacy, IT skills or more sophisticated management packages. And it is here that union learning reps can work with employers by identifying the best courses and training for their workmates. From next year, thousands of employers will have a new legal right to request time off for training. This opportunity must be grasped: surely most managers will see that everybody in the workplace will reap the reward.

Tom Wilson is the director of unionlearn, which helps unions encourage lifelong learning among members

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