From education to employment

Mary Alys, Regional Manager of unionlearn at the Midlands TUC explains the challenges they face in

It is now well documented that the higher an individual’s level of qualification, the more likely they are to receive additional training. This leaves those without qualifications with less of a chance. Given that one third of employers are not training their staff, it’s even worse for the West Midlands, where 44% of the region’s workforce is not being trained. Of all the English regions, it’s the two Midlands regions, which have the highest proportion of people with no qualifications: 12.2 % in the West and 12.2% in the East compared with a national average of 10.8%.

Overall demand for skills is expected to increase as the structure of UK employment changes and trade unions with unionlearn are working right across the region to open up learning opportunities for people at work. Union-negotiated Learning Agreements have benefited workers, employers and companies. Where management has been directly engaged they have reaped the benefits of improved retention rates, being perceived of as a better employer and improved industrial relations. For the employee, as well as gaining skills for the workplace and on-going employability, union learning activity has been of real benefit to individuals within their own families and communities.

The Midlands unionlearn region covers a very wide and diverse geographic area, which includes several cities as well as extensive rural areas. The Midlands was known as the UK’s “manufacturing heartland” particularly for engineering, textiles and as the home of the Potteries. However, in recent decades it has borne the brunt of economic change with the demise of manufacturing including the recent high-profile tragedies like MG Rover and Peugeot alongside all the smaller firms which never hit the headlines. The rising numbers of redundancies serves to emphasise the importance of training, re-skilling and lifelong learning.

Trade unions are meeting these challenges through developing partnership working with many employers across the region. Central to this is the role of Union Learning Representative. There are now over 1,800 ULRs in workplaces throughout the region and some well known companies such as Arriva, First Bus, Rolls Royce, BT, Sainsbury’s, Toyota, Midland Mainline, British Bakeries and Jacob’s Biscuits have already been engaged for some time with the learning and skills agenda. So too in the public sector, unions are encouraging members and colleagues at work to take up learning opportunities. One such example is the West Midlands Fire Service and the FBU who now have newly trained ULRs setting up learning in a range of areas including numeracy, literacy and Urdu.

At Quebecor World in Corby a partnership between an international company and Unite-Amicus recently saw the opening of a new learning centre at which a learning agreement was also signed. At Christian Salvesen, USDAW has secured an agreement offering paid work time for many of its migrant workforce to improve their English, thereby assisting particularly with health and safety issues in the workplace as well as improving communication.

In several redundancy situations trade unions have worked with the company to ensure people gain skills for employability during the period prior to closure. In the Potteries at Royal Doulton, Unity, the Ceramics union was able to facilitate Skills for life tuition, which enabled 400 out of 530 workers facing redundancy to gain qualifications in literacy, numeracy or ICT.

Unionlearn provides support to union project workers and ULRs to assist them in their roles. This ranges across providing initial and follow on training for their role, updating on latest initiatives and policy, negotiating with providers and linking them into localised learning offers. We work with local providers to bring a range of provision into the workplace. Skills for Life learning has for many unions been a focus along with ICT as they have worked to break down the barriers to learning at work amongst workforces with few or no qualifications.

Our Trade Union Education programme provides training for union representatives and officers, offering an education progression route that can take them from level 1 to level 3 as well as accessing higher education. In addition a range of short courses on specific issues are on offer, for example on “Greening the Workplace” or “Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence” are current courses. Trade Union Education has a longstanding reputation for high quality education and training, providing 6,000 course places annually across these centres. The programme is dynamic and progressive with course content continually under review to make sure it is up to date and meets the needs of trade unions.

The Midlands is a vast region and trade unions together with unionlearn are working to make a real difference to lives of individuals in the workforce. Shift patterns, caring responsibilities, particular barriers to learning faced by varied groups of workers are all tackled with the support of flexible providers to enable access to learning opportunities across the workforce. Unions are demonstrating that they are a key player on the learning and skills agenda.

Mary Alys, Regional Manager, unionlearn with the Midlands TUC

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