From education to employment

Brenda Zagorska reports on developments from the TUC Conference

Early September and the trade union movement heads to Brighton for the TUC annual Congress. It’s clear from the start that skills are going to play a large part at Congress. It started at the beginning and right from the top, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaking at length about the importance of upskilling the nation in his first speech to the TUC as Prime Minister. Monday’s speech left delegates in no uncertainty as to the commitment of the Government to increasing productivity through equipping the workforce with more and better skills in order to compete with India and China. Calling for the UK to confound its critics, he claimed that the twenty-first century could belong to the UK. It’s ambitious stuff, but the Prime Minister, a passionate supporter of Trade Union education, put his money where his mouth was, announcing an extra three million pounds for the unionlearn-administered Union Learning Fund. He praised the work of unionlearn’s 18,000 Union Learning Reps (ULRs), as did social commentator Polly Toynbee in the following day’s Guardian.

The Trade Union Movement has a long history of promoting education as an important step in achieving social equality. It was precisely to that point which TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O”Grady returned at a packed fringe meeting to discuss tackling the training divide. She was joined by EEF Chief Economist Steve Radley, Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher and Further Education Bill Rammell MP, and Billy Hayes, unionlearn Board Chair and General Secretary of the CWU. Billy Hayes was proud to reveal that the CWU had signed up to the Skills Pledge.

Frances O”Grady spoke of the skills problem in the wider context of social inequality, drawing attention to the key role that skills can play in the environment of globalisation and tackling poverty. She warned that if the problem of low skills is not eradicated by 2010, then the TUC will be first in line to ask the Government for paid time off to train. Bill Rammell cautioned that there was a great deal of work to do but was keen to promote a shared responsibility for increasing skills levels between employers, individuals, and the state. The Minister was unequivocal on one point and that was his support for ULRs in workplaces across the country. Emphasizing that the skills crisis was the biggest social, political and economic problem facing the UK, he paid tribute to ULRs as a vital contribution to the Government’s success in increasing engagement with Skills for Life and Level Two. There was also a clear pat on the back for the FE sector, as Bill Rammell reiterated the high levels of satisfaction expressed by those employers who were using the sector.

Liz Smith, unionlearn director was impressed by the robustness of questions put to all panel members. “The interest in this discussion of skills covered a wide range of issues, which shows just how important and relevant to trade union members and non-members alike. Here a variety of stakeholders such as providers, the SSDA, academics, ULRs and learners were all able to bring excellent and varied contributions to the debate, which certainly gave me food for thought. It just goes to show that we are all affected by skills in one way or another ““ it is an issue that we all need to take stock of.”

In a day when Richard Lambert Director General of the CBI had also addressed Congress, there was a great deal of engagement in the skills debate. In contrast to his announcement that employers were spending more on training, the TUC has consistently claimed that over a third of employers fail to provide any training over and above that which is statutory for their workforces. In addition, a new TUC report entitled Time to Tackle the Training Divide, points towards the inequality of training provision. Forty-one per cent of graduate employees recently participated in job-related training compared to only 12% of employees with no qualifications. This Catch 22 situation allows a training divide to open up between the haves and have nots of education.

If Monday was Gordon Brown’s day and Tuesday was the delegates” day for debate, then Wednesday will belong to ULRs. At a unionlearn reception, thirteen ULRs from all over the country will meet and brief David Lammy, Minister for Skills. He will hear at first hand about workplace learning and the barriers faced by ULRs and learners. As Julie Robinson, a ULR from Tristar Homes Ltd in Stockton-on-Tees said: “I feel it is important to spread the word about the good work that ULRs are doing in workplaces all over the North East. It is about promoting learning not only in the working environment but also outside of the workplace. Learning provides access to resources and opportunities enabling individuals to develop personally and professionally.”

From UniChem in Preston, from the Department for Work and Pensions in East Sussex, and from BT in Leeds, ULRs and through them learners, will be making their voices heard at the very highest levels in the skills debate.

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