Friday, 15 July 2011

Education and training boosted by union learning reps

Unite Union Learning Representatives [ULR’s] right across Britain are playing a valuable role in increasing numbers of members lives by negotiating with employers for learning facilities and supporting those learning a new skill.  It’s now hoped their successes will encourage others to train as ULR’s. This will help further expand the education service Unite, in conjunction with employers, is providing. 

ULR’s came into existence a year after the new Labour Government created the Union Learning Fund in 1998, which acknowledged the important role of trade unions in creating a learning society. They were given statutory recognition and rights to reasonable paid time off under the Employment Act 2002. Duties include undertaking relevant training, providing information and arranging training for members, identifying learning skills needs in the workplace and negotiating learning agreements with employers.

Although each has their own tale to tell, a healthy number of the current ULR’s got involved following a period of self-study. This convinced them of the benefits of continuing education, even for those who long since left the classroom. At first it was about signposting people to relevant courses but now more and more are able to offer specialist careers advice to members after undertaking Information, Advice and Guidance courses to a professional standard.

Stuart Beard works for Northern Rail. Ignoring the jibe that he should be pleased to be based just round the corner from the original Manchester United ground in Newton Heath the fitter’s mate reveals some of the passion he normally reserves for his beloved Manchester City. In a move he regretted for many years afterwards, Stuart walked out of school in the 70’s without any. Finding work with British Aerospace he stayed until 2006, when he changed jobs to reduce his travelling time.

Shortly after his new employer asked if he wanted to become more skilled, agreeing to fund, with help from the government, his Engineering NVQ Level 2 course fees at nearby Oldham Technical College. Helped by some “great tutors” and classmates not even half his age he really enjoyed studying in his spare time. Not that it was an easy.
“It was the most intensive period of education I have ever undertaken. Computing was particularly difficult as I had not done any previously but you get helped all the way. The course took me eight months over three days a week. The course was a personal thing, but the feeling I got from achieving my NVQ2 was amazing,” said Stuart.

Now convinced that his workmates would benefit from, and enjoy, similar opportunities Stuart was only too happy to take up the suggestion of one of the shop stewards to become the ULR on site. Early last year [2009] after Unite wrote to the company he became officially recognised. He’s been busy since, putting in around 5-6 hours of unpaid work each week into his new role.

“I did a questionnaire at the start for every one of the 90 employee’s on site. The response was amazing and once the courses kicked off people from every section got involved, including cleaners and the semi-skilled men. We run the courses that people are interested in. For example we are just setting up one in Spanish for beginners. But I am particularly keen to push the skills 4 life in information technology, literacy and numeracy” said Stuart

Manchester College do the pre course assessments that people get paid time off to attend. This follows an agreement made with management at the steering group, which was established to take the education programmes forward. Completion of the skills 4 life courses are leading people to move forward onto NVQ’s from levels one to three. In September 2010 almost a third of the workforce was involved.

Stuart is extremely pleased, saying, “It’s great. We use a training room and tutors come in for an hour at a time with staff. Those who got involved knew it was to be undertaken in their own time, but management have recognised how the courses improve people’s morale and performance and have just agreed to pay back a cash equivalent of twenty hours on completion of each course. That’s about a quarter of the study time.”

Paul Grimes, the acting district maintenance manager, praised Stuart’s efforts saying, “The courses are fantastic and bolt on and continue what we are trying to achieve, Stuart has done a good job.”

Andy Eastell, an employee of Coca-Cola at Wakefield, West Yorkshire is hoping in time to emulate his fellow ULR’s achievement. His workplace employs around 350 and Andy, who has also been a shop steward for eight of his eleven years working there, is looking to negotiate an agreement with management to open a Learning Centre on site. With many staff already possessing a range of technical skills Andy is keen to help those he represents improve their numeric and literacy skills. In part it’s because he feels many are missing out on reading opportunities in their spare time, but he also recognises “that any new skills will benefit the company in the form of a better motivated and educated workforce. It’s a win-win situation.”

A view with which Tracy Lemmon, a Barclays Bank employee in Sunderland for eleven years, agrees. Four years ago, after returning to work following the birth of her first child, she was asked to become the ULR. She’d never heard of it before, but keen after an earlier period as a workplace rep, to play her part in the union she soon accepted the challenge.  Taster courses quickly established that amongst the 1,600 working at the Doxford Park contact centre site a number were keen to get involved. So much so that in 2009 over 200 achieved their Real Coaching NVQ’s and in September 2010 over 100 names were down for skills 4 life courses with double that number for customer services NVQ’s.

Such successes have justified Unite’s negotiations with Barclays to ensure that Tracy has two days a week facility time in her ULR role. Keen to increase the service she offers she is now following a path established through the efforts of union learn, and now taken by over 250 ULR’s in all unions across the north-east and Cumbria, in studying for her level 3 NVQ in Information, Advice and Guidance [IAG].

“I will be able to offer careers advice if my studies are successful. It makes sense to offer such a service, members and non-members who I have helped persuade to study often come to me for further advice” said Tracy whose efforts have also had the effect of considerably boosting Unite’s membership at Doxford Park, up from 20% four years ago to well over half now.

Tracy’s considerable efforts have just been given official recognition, with a Matrix award for the combined projects at Doxford Park and at Barclaycard on Teesside. This is the national quality standard for information, advice and/or guidance.

“I am very pleased, but the real pleasure of being a ULR is assisting people to take on new educational and training opportunities that can help with their personal and professional development,” said Tracy.

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