Getting the right help at the right time can turn round a bleak jobs outlook

While official figures show that the UK scraped out of recession in the fourth quarter of 2009, union reps up and down the country report little evidence of this anaemic recovery. "Firefighting on a daily basis" is how one dismayed union rep described the situation as redundancies continued to mount in his area. Companies may be battling for survival, but this is the very time when training matters most in order to equip those under threat of redundancy with the skills to find new jobs. This is where unionlearn's Skills: Recession and Recovery (SRR) project comes into play, although, as national co-ordinator Kirsi Kekki points out, it remains firmly in recession rather than recovery.

The SRR project, managed through nine regional representatives, helps union learning reps to swing into action when redundancies loom. The support can vary – from advice on CV writing and job-hunting techniques to practical training so that individuals can turn their workplace experience into paper qualifications to impress potential new employers.

Importantly, this is not just about helping members but also supporting employers so that they can access pots of money that may stave off the need to shed jobs in the first place. "There are lots of sources of funding and support for employers and employees, but it's knowing where it is and how to access it at a time when you're fighting for survival," says Kekki, who advocates the formation of a one-stop-shop solution. "There need to be ready-made systems that can kick in straightaway. It really is a race against time to give individuals the training and qualifications they need within that 90-day consultation period so they then have a better chance to move into other jobs."

Ken Gyles is the unionlearn SRR regional development worker in the North, covering the North-east, one of the areas hardest hit by the economic downturn. He is getting rather too much practice in handling redundancy situations but concedes employers and unions are better organised than in the previous recession. "There is evidence that employers are asking employees to take pay freezes or changes to terms and conditions to keep people in work," says Gyles.

Overall, however, the picture is gloomy in the North-east. "We continue to lose jobs in this area, even though there's been a slowdown in the redundancy numbers," says Gyles.

The number of unemployed rose by 7,000 to 126,000 in the North-east between September and November and that doesn't count the bad news from the steel giant Corus, which is losing 1,800 jobs directly, with another 5,000 at risk across the supply chain.

"Members are shocked, and reps are too, but they have to pick themselves up and do everything they can to help people get back into the job market," says Gyles. "It's about giving reps the knowledge and contacts and support so they can knock on the door of the employer and say we want services involved that can support their members' needs during these uncertain times."

One North East, the regional development agency, has an initiative Real Help for Businesses Now which which signposts businesses to potential grants and loans, advice on managing cashflow, and schemes to save on energy costs. Then there's the FSA's Moneymadeclear initiative, which provides free finance advice and briefings for employees in the workplace; and nextstep, another free service that can offer skills checks, help with CV writing and interview techniques and which can help workers find training that will match local job opportunities.

And those opportunities do exist in the region, particularly in the renewable and low-carbon sectors, although, as Gyles says, the new job announcements are in the hundreds while the losses run into the thousands. Even so, it should be possible to capitalise on the region's high manufacturing skills base, honed by the demands of the North Sea oil and gas fabrication industry, to attract further inward green investment. Clipper Windpower, for example, which makes offshore wind turbine blades, has announced 500 new jobs on Tyneside this year, with the hope of more in future years. Nissan's Wearside factory near Sunderland beat off competition from other Nissan factories in Europe to secure the investment to start producing batteries for electric cars, which should create 350 new jobs. JDR Cable Systems, whose plant is in Hartlepool, has been awarded the contract for the supply of subsea power cables for the growing offshore renewable energy sector, which it hopes will create 150 new jobs; while the new £250m Ensus biofuels plant on Teesside, Europe's largest wheat biorefinery, has created 100 new jobs, with a further 2,000 across the supply chain.

This is positive stuff. But while the UK economy expanded by 0.3 per cent in the fourth quarter, ending six consecutive quarters of contraction, many pundits now fear a double-dip recession as widely expected public sector job cuts threaten the feeble recovery. Bracing for the fallout from these cuts, unionlearn is gearing up to offer support for workers who may struggle with the transition from the relative security of the public sector to the cut and thrust of the private sector.

In the North-east, for example, the public sector employs one in three workers. Across the country unions fear that public sector job losses will hit female employment hardest – four in 10 women work in the public sector, compared with fewer than two in 10 men – so that many families could be left with both parents out of work.

Getting the right help at the right time, which usually means employers and unions working together, can transform this bleak outlook into something much more positive. This was the experience of the Polestar magazine print group, which, like the rest of the printing industry, has been hard hit by the downturn. "The printing industry has been in recession for two and a half years and it's a very tough, very competitive market," says Polestar's group training director, Darrin Stevens.

With three rounds of redundancies in 18 months, Polestar recognised, to its credit, that it would need to invest in training and skills if it were to compete in a highly competitive global marketplace. What's more, with an average age of 48, the workforce could struggle to find alternative employment when the redundancies hit.

"People often joined the printing industry as apprentices and would work there for 35 years, with lots of on-the-job training but no formal qualifications," says Stevens. "Even though they are very competent and run million-pound print machines, they never kept their skill set up to date on paper, and we saw that could be a problem."

But training costs money, which was in short supply. So the company turned to unionlearn and Unite, which helped set up a state-of-the-art learning suite at Polestar's Worcestershire plant, drawing on funding from the West Midlands regional development agency. There are now 120 people in workplace learning in Worcestershire and 26 workers recently secured NVQ Level 3 in management. Individuals can use the transferable skills to boost their job prospects at Polestar or elsewhere in the printing industry: some of those made redundant have been able to find new jobs within weeks, says Stevens.

Those in workplace learning are less likely to be selected for redundancy, thereby upskilling the retained workforce ready for the recovery. There have already been tangible benefits: Stevens says one employee came up with an idea for the management of the printing press tapes that could save the group £100,000 a year. "There's been a real change in culture and we're breaking down the 'them and us' mentality," says Stevens. "People see that what's good for them is good for the business, and vice versa."

Employees with no formal education have been delighted to score highly in exams. Stevens says: "People have a new confidence in themselves. They're not afraid to speak up and reorganise things. They can't believe what they're capable of, and it's transforming their lives."