Human Resource Management

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Unions contribute to workplace learning

27 April 2004 - Two reports show that union learning reps have encouraged 25,000 fellow workers to try some form of workplace learning in the year since learning representatives were given new legal rights to promote learning at work.

Trade union learning representatives, a report produced by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) with the Learning and Skills Council and the TUC, states that union learning reps are collaborating well with their employers to increase learning take-up in many organizations.

The report shows that employees in junior positions are gaining the greatest benefits. Many of these workers are suspicious of learning and training initiatives, often associating learning with unpleasant experiences during their schooldays. Learning reps can provide a mixture of support and encouragement to these reluctant learners, persuading them to go on courses that can help enhance their own skills and their effectiveness in the workplace.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber commented: "Because of their unique position in the workplace, union learning reps are perfectly placed to encourage both their bosses and their colleagues to take learning at work seriously. In the last twelve months, with their role now backed by the law, learning reps are going from strength to strength and bringing learning to those parts of the workforce who traditionally missed out."

Victoria Gill, Learning, Training and Development Adviser at the CIPD, said: "Creating a learning culture within organisations requires a partnership between employers and employees. Learning is to everyone's advantage - boosting opportunities for individuals and generating returns for employers alike. But all too often employees on the front line view learning, training and development initiatives with suspicion. The success of legislation to assist union learning representatives has been the increased involvement of employees at all grades within organisations in learning opportunities."

The second report - New faces - includes results from a TUC survey of learning reps conducted last year. This shows that women seem to find the new learning roles particularly attractive. Just over a quarter (28%) of learning representatives are new to union activities, with over a half of these (59%) being women who had never before been active in a trade union.

With over 7,000 union learning reps already active across the UK, and a high level of interest, the TUC believes that its target of 22,000 trained learning reps is fully achievable by the end of the decade.

Union learning reps are fairly evenly split between public (52%) and private (47%) sectors. 52% of learning representatives work in large organizations, but a considerable number are also employed in firms with fewer than 250 employees.

51% of union learning reps said their organizations had formal learning agreements with the unions in their workplaces. The TUC considers these employers to be the most likely to take employee learning seriously.

Case studies

INA Bearing Company Limited, a subsidiary of a privately owned German engineering group, has 360 people employees at its UK manufacturing facility in Llanelli, South Wales. Over the last three years the company has focused on continuous improvement and enhanced employee skills in response to increased competition from low-labour-cost countries. Management and HR staff have welcomed the involvement of the trade union Amicus in learning, together with the creation of union learning representatives.

Adrian Roberts, Personnel Manager says: "We're trying to remove every barrier and give every opportunity for learning. For INA the new reps are key allies in the promotion of learning and lifelong learning on the shop floor." Close collaboration between INA, the learning representatives and the union have led to a learning agreement which means that INA programmes such as learndirect are no longer seen just as management initiatives. Making information on the company training plan and budget freely available also creates an environment of trust and openness, ensuring that everyone works together.

David Preece, Amicus union learning representative added: "We know what the production targets are and we know the business, but we also understand the pressures of shift- working and what people on the shop floor want when it comes to training."

Learning reps from construction union UCATT have been helping workers on one of the UK's largest building sites to become computer literate and keep their health and safety knowledge up-to-date. A learning centre has been established in a portakabin at the foot of Canary Wharf Tower where the representatives have been helping construction workers from all over the 86-acre site get to grips with computers and improve their health and safety knowledge. The learning center also offers the large number of migrant workers from Eastern Europe the opportunity to improve their English. This is of vital importance in a working environment where clear communication can mean the difference between life and death.

According to lead project worker Sean Andrew: "The construction industry at Canary Wharf has all the barriers to learning - a transient workforce; a high level of ethnic minorities with English language needs; lots of support needed for learners; lack of recognition by supervisory staff of the need for their operatives to train; and difficulty in getting paid release to do it. But because we're showing that the learning centre works and such a lot of people are using it, we've got a queue a mile long for our training."

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