A second opportunity to learn benefits employees and employers

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The Independent Online

Despite the often-repeated mantra that a skilled workforce is a happier workforce, developing a culture of learning in an organisation can be difficult. When Merseytravel, the operating name of the Merseyside Integrated Transport Authority and Executive, launched a workplace learning programme in 2002, one quarter of the staff had poor levels of literacy and numeracy. Many didn't have a single Level 2 qualification; equivalent to five A*-C GCSEs. The Merseylearn project, a partnership between Merseytravel, unionlearn and the Learning and Skills Council, focused on creating three state-of-the-art learning centres accessible on a 24-hour basis to all staff.

Today, more than 90 per cent of the Merseytravel workforce has a Level 2 pass or higher and the company reports that motivation and performance are at record levels. Many staff are now studying for HNC's or Masters degrees.

"There was a huge fear factor among some of our staff in the beginning, particularly so among those who had left school many years ago," says Liz Chandler, director of corporate development. "I needed as much muscle as possible in order to get my message across, and by using the union reps as ambassadors, I was able to calm nerves and get a good level of acceptance."

While literacy and numeracy levels among older staff were a major challenge, so too was the discovery that many recent graduates had significant learning needs. Chandler says: "Not being able to use punctuation properly – particularly apostrophes – was a common problem among many of our graduates, even though they had been through many years of formal education. That too had to be sorted."

All 825 Merseytravel staff have now been through a learning programme, including chief executive officer Neil Scales, who brushed up his information and communication technology skills.

"We've kept the sessions flexible, so shift workers can do their training on or off-shift," says Chandler. "We have also offered a choice of classroom or individual learning sessions, as well as interest-free computer loans so that staff can carry out their learning remotely."

While Merseytravel could have launched a work-based learning scheme without the unions' help, Chandler doubts it would have been successful. "Our partnership with the unions helped demonstrate this wasn't a management-only proposition, which may have led to cynicism in some workers. The collaboration undoubtedly helped establish the scheme in the early days, but it also ensures it continues to succeed today. The fact that our programme has now been replicated by many of our suppliers and operators speaks volumes."

Like other unionlearn partnerships, Merseytravel has experienced less sick leave and better internal promotion rates since adopting a culture of learning, but there have also been departures.

"Of course there's a danger that if you train your people, they will leave you for something more senior," says Chandler, "but as far as we are concerned, the danger of having people without aspiration staying with you is probably far more of an issue."

The extent of trade union engagement with and enthusiasm for work-based learning programmes is highlighted in a forthcoming report from the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (Ceric) at the University of Leeds.

Due to be published next month, Ceric's research among 400 unionised workplaces in the public and private sectors reveals that learning centres have now been established at 54 per cent of organisations. Some 78 per cent of workplaces – ranging in size from 20 to 40,000 employees – report that staff have been funded to take part in work-related courses, while measures to address basic skills gaps have been introduced in 76 per cent. New qualification programmes have been introduced in 70 per cent of organisations.

"Union learning is not some peripheral activity that is of no interest to employers," says Professor Mark Stuart, who is leading the Leeds research. "It not only benefits individuals and their employers directly in terms of the reduction of skills gaps but also improves staff morale, trust in employers and, ultimately, organisational performance.

"We have found that employers are increasingly willing to invest their own money in sustaining these learning activities and are making them part of the formal negotiating machinery at many workplaces."

Beside producing a happier, more motivated workforce and improving communication with other staff and customers, the impact of unionlearn schemes has already been dramatic.

The experience of Cityclean is typical. Under the umbrella of Cityclean and Cityparks, Brighton City Services provides refuse, recycling, street cleaning and parks services to the city's fast-growing population.

Since introducing the scheme, Cityclean's annual sickness levels have declined by an average of five days per person and it reports improved form-filling, a reduction in complaints from the public and a growing interest in the company from job seekers.

"I see it as our role to challenge the belief among some of our workers that they are thick – simply because they don't have any formal qualifications to talk about or put on their CV," says Elaine Sweetman, learning and development officer at Brighton City Services.

"The truth is that many of us have talents and abilities that were not brought out while we were at school, but this is often no reflection on our abilities or our potential as adults.

"Being given a second chance to learn can make all the difference, both to employees' morale and self-confidence and it undoubtedly helps the business as a whole."

Last year Cityclean's learning partnership with the GMB general union enabled more than 70 staff to take courses in anything from basic numeracy and literacy to French or Polish; the latter reflecting the desire of many staff to talk to colleagues in their native language. More than 40 learners went on to gain nationally recognised qualifications such as NVQs in waste management or basic IT skills.

One notable success was an HGV driver who began his basic literacy catch-up with the reading age of an average nine-year-old. After completing the course at Cityclean's learning resource centre, he applied for – and secured – a job with the train drivers' union, Aslef, where he now runs the union's first staff learning centre.

"We've had people gaining confidence to the stage where they jumped ship and have gone for something better, but we don't mind at all," says Sweetman. "It's a mark of unionlearn's success that people can turn their lives around after being given a chance to improve their skills later in life."

In terms of selling the scheme to the workforce, the impartiality of unionlearn has been a major bonus. "My role is neither union nor management-focused, so both sides can buy into it," says Sweetman. "The unions wanted their people to get better training and management wanted a more skilled workforce, so both sides are happy."

Employers' survey findings

· 40 per cent of workplaces say that the take-up of job-related learning has increased

· 54 per cent report an increased equality of access to learning opportunities

· 47 per cent say that basic skills gaps have decreased

· 54 per cent report an increase in qualifications

· 22 per cent have increased their expenditure on employee training

· 31 per cent report an increase in organisational performance

· 41 per cent report an improvement in staff morale and levels of trust