From education to employment

Liz Smith, Director of unionlearn, writes her monthly column for FE News

Those of us involved in union workplace learning are marking two important anniversaries this year. We are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Union Learning Fund (ULF) and the fifth anniversary of statutory rights being won for Union Learning Reps (ULRs) to have facility time to carry out their duties, and training by the TUC or their union.

The ULF provision has enabled over 400,000 people to be trained through the union route ““ with over 150,000 of them in the last year alone. And the ULRs that have been trained during this period have certainly justified their new found rights. This was reflected in a recent parliamentary answer by DIUS Secretary of State, John Denham, who said: “I pay tribute to the work of the 18,000 union learning representatives. Someone’s best friend at work will often be the most likely person to convince them that they should have another go at training, and the union learning representatives have been a success.”

Although we have much to celebrate, we, like everyone else live in the real world. And good work can easily be affected by “events” as a former Prime Minister once put it. So it was disheartening to see the gloomy 2008 predictions for industry and the economy from some respectable players in their new year messages. My own colleagues at the TUC are concerned that holding down public sector pay will put unhelpful pressure on industrial relations. And the HR industry, represented by the CIPD, are forecasting an increase in unemployment to 1.8m. The FT’s survey of senior figures in the world of economics are suggesting that the credit crunch is affecting not only the housing market, but also many other aspects of the economy ““ all of which may put real pressure on employment prospects.

Even if there’s only a small measure of truth in what the experts are saying it means that we must campaign effectively to keep the need for skills and training high on the political agenda. That is why in 2008 unionlearn will take its message of success into parliament with our campaign to get more public figures aware of union workplace learning. We are inviting MPs to join us in “Learning together ““ winning together” and to visit union learning projects.

It’s good to see that already this new year that Gordon Brown has reiterated his commitment to making skills a key policy element. Last week, in his new publication to mark the tenth anniversary of the “New Deal”, the Prime Minister linked skills to a new approach to tackling the forthcoming economic challenges around welfare. Mr Brown said the Governments whole approach had to “move on” to refocus on individuals employability and skills.

It’s a given that in a market economy workers” most important assets are their skills. We, therefore, welcomed Gordon Brown’s continuing support for the ULF, which will result in more union members taking courses in colleges or workplaces, supported by FE tutors.

It is clear that despite many potential economic and industrial pitfalls in 2008 that skills and the role of the FE sector must have a high priority. All of us in FE and workplace learning need to work to keep our profile and success stories high in the public consciousness.

Liz Smith, director, unionlearn

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