From education to employment

Exclusive: Helen Cole, regional manager of unionlearn South West talks to FE News about their work

Unionlearn in the South West has been working with workplace learners for the last nine years as well as delivering an effective education service, training union representatives and full time officials at the rate of 2,500 per year. We like to take an innovative approach to our work and to strengthen unionlearn by working with a range of key partner organisations. Over 900 Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) in this region are essential for engaging hard to reach learners in workplaces. And let’s face it – much of the work of unionlearn would not exist without these dedicated reps. They persuade and negotiate with their employer as well as providing peer support for colleagues and are supported by unionlearn project workers and 25 union learning organisers across the region. We like to engage ULRs and learners on a range of issues and recent topics covered at our popular events have included Train to Gain, financial literacy, migrant workers and equality.

During the first phase of our Learning Works for All, 15 unions ran 31 successful projects with a range of over 70 partners, indicating the breadth of the project. Workplaces that engaged in projects included GKN, Somerset, Westlands, Clarks, and Pittards. More unusual work was done with actors in Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire with Plymouth Theatre Royal and the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. In Cornish schools we have been implementing work life balance and getting the term off to a good start. Unions throughout the region have played an active role and jumped onboard the learning agenda with great enthusiasm.

Some of our innovative work includes working with retained firefighters and migrant worker communities. Our involvement with migrant workers has led to valuable partnerships with the voluntary and community sector. It has also given us the chance to develop and pilot an employment rights course for migrant workers and awareness and organising courses for union representatives and full time officials. We believe the continuing provision of free English language training is essential for migrant workers and their communities.

One excellent example of our work is at the Royal Mail Centre in Gloucester, where the CWU are working with our epath project to teach literacy, numeracy and IT. The learning centre is a joint venture with staff and managers; Royal Mail provides the room and the CWU provides the equipment. There are 450 workers at the centre and a further 1,300 postmen and women across the county.

Unionlearn works with a range of companies and organisations, in both the public and private sectors. Since we work with over 50 employers, partnership is essential to our work and some of the best employers contribute time off for learners as well as financial resources. True workplace partnerships can help employers with better internal communication and improved staff retention rates. It can also lead to being seen as the employer of choice in an area, due to their enhanced reputation. Pittards, a leather manufacturer in Yeovil, Somerset, is a good example, with a union learning centre onsite which has been active for nearly five years. The work has now developed to include a joint business improvement programme and the ULRs and Pittards have received a number of awards for their work.

It’s nice to share some of the highlights of our work and to recognise success. Our mission remains to encourage working people back into learning, to train and support workplace reps to be an effective force for improvement and change, and to engage employers so that they actively support the training and upskilling of their workforce.

Helen Cole, Regional Manager, unionlearn

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