From education to employment

unionlearn Director gives FE News

As the Conservative Party conference gets underway, it marks the end of what has been a successful conference season for unionlearn. I have attended them all and will be speaking at a Conservative conference event as well.

But in two of the most talked about speeches over the last week, those of us in the skills world heard really encouraging words. Prime Minister Tony Blair threw down a gauntlet to what was once called both sides of industry: “I say to business: you have a responsibility to train your workforce. To trade unions: here is the chance to be the learning partners for the workforce of the next generation. Take the chance”.

And from Chancellor Gordon Brown, one of our Skills for Life Advocates, we heard that “you cannot buy from elsewhere what in the global economy you need most; the skills and the creativity of all our people”¦give vocational qualifications parity of esteem with academic qualifications”.

In Mr Blair’s speech a chance was offered, and we know that the Government is offering much encouragement to employers as they are to unions. Mr Brown tackled head-on the issue of, effectively, snobbery in the vocational/academic divide. There is a lot for us to try and grasp and to keep the politicians to their promises.

At the TUC Congress in Brighton, ministers, trade unionists and employers” organisations came together at a fringe meeting to discuss establishing a skills standard for the services sector of our economy.

The skills sector has over 500,000 workers usually placed in the lowest paid jobs; cleaners, security workers, and receptionists. Employers in the Business Services Association (BSA) have established a joint project with civil service union (PCS), which is supported by the government to create the skills standard.

The service skills standard has been piloted in nine companies. The early results show that all stakeholders are winners in this project: workers feel respected and see their skills increased, companies see their productivity levels increase, and the UK economy benefits overall.

Also at a TUC meeting on the Treasury initiated skills review Lord Leitch spoke about the skills crisis, and gave a glimpse of what might be in his final report which is due later this year. It was pleasing to see that he was supportive of “Licence to Practice”, and saw unions as central to upskilling the workforce. Moving from policy to politicians, Frances O”Grady, Deputy Secretary General of the TUC hosted a reception for Phil Hope, Skills Minister, and 15 Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) from across the country. The ULRs bent the Minister’s ear about the great work they are doing in setting up learning centres and encouraging workmates to go on courses.

At the Liberal Democrats conference Frances O”Grady, Richard Lambert, and Ed Davey were interesting speakers at another PCS/BSA briefing, where the CBI Director General questioned the value of the FE sector, claiming that only 2% of the CBI’s members bother with it.

I was really surprised to hear him say that employers don”t see time off to train as much of an issue. According to the LSC’s National Employers Skills Survey 2005, 28% of all employers use FE colleges for training but 63% of large employers (500+) do so.

The Survey also found that “the vast majority of employers were satisfied with the training they sourced through FE colleges, and only around 1 in 12 were dissatisfied with their experience of FE training”, translating into a 92% positive satisfaction rating. Perhaps the FE sector suffered in the past from not being seen as “sexy” as universities and schools; perhaps it was of no interest to the press as it primarily served working class kids and adults.

However, we all need to wake up to the fact that FE matters.

We challenge him to come and see what trade union members can do with that precious time. In our experience there are growing numbers of colleges providing excellent services – both training and support – to unions and we would love to take Richard Lambert along to see some of them.

Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn.

Read Liz Smith every month exclusively on FE News

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