It is now almost 20 years since Nicola Njie was hauled off to see the head teacher in the hope that he could persuade her to stay on in the sixth form. At a school not known for its academic excellence, her six good GCSE grades stood out and her form tutor thought she had considerable academic potential.

They told her that she would stand a better chance of a good, well-paid job with further qualifications, but Nicola was unmoved. She wanted to earn money straightaway and to be more independent. Three years later, she had plenty of time to think of what might have been while she was putting gussets in tights at a local factory. But now she has a job she enjoys, a passion for her role as a union learning rep (ULR) for Unison and an award for the 2009 learning rep of the year that was presented to her by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

In fact, there is not much that Nicola, 35, is not passionate about – her two children, her supportive family, the union and the work she does as a learning rep to encourage people back into education and training. Though the role of a union learning rep is a fairly new position, it has quickly become important as people seek to improve their skills and job prospects in the economic downturn. The reps seek to raise awareness of the opportunities for learning inside and beyond the workplace, assess the demand for different courses and liaise with employers.

"Learning has an important role to play in improving people's lives, but many can be put off by bad experiences at school, or because they are not confident of their abilities. The network of learner reps helps more people to benefit from improving their skills," she says. "The workforce is really enthused about learning again and there is so much more we can do."

Looking back, she regrets, in some ways, leaving school at 16, but in others she is happy with the way her career is now going. "I did actually enjoy school – I didn't have a bad experience. The job I really wanted to do was to be a scenes of crime officer, so when I left school I contacted the police and said that was what I wanted to do. The person in charge at the time said: 'Well, you are a girl and you are 16, so I'm not sure that working in that environment would be appropriate for you'."

His sexist remark made her even keener to get in. "I contacted a youth training scheme and worked in a mortuary for two months, then rang them again and told them what I had done. I managed to get on a training scheme through Leicestershire County Council and worked in the scenes of crime department, learning how to dust and match fingerprints. I really loved it, but it wasn't much money – about £45 a week."

She was living at home and at about that time her parents split up. "It became a bit more difficult then and I decided to go and work in a factory to earn better money. That was when my education stopped," she says. By the age of 21, she was married, and her daughter was born, followed by her son. While her son was still a baby, Nicola's marriage broke up and, with two small children, there was little chance to return to education.

Once they were in school full time, she started working as a customer services representative in call centres and found she was quite good at dealing with people. She now works for E.ON, the power and gas company, for 30 hours a week, made possible, she says, by the support from her family who help to look after her daughter, now 13, and her son, nine.

"I didn't really know much about the trade union and I got into it after replying to a notice on the board for someone to help as a learning rep. I thought helping people with education would be a really nice thing to do and I wanted to get back into education myself," she says.

"The way my children learn is so different from the way I learned – you don't realise how much things change. I thought: 'Yes, I've got my GCSEs, but they are not going to mean anything the way things are moving so fast'."

She responded to the advert, and six months after joining a union for the first time in August 2007 she became a learning rep. There was no stopping her. When the East Midlands learning co-ordinator left to have a baby, Nicola took over her role. Last year she was "amazed" to be voted learning rep of the year after pioneering the first trial learning agreement in the energy sector. Receiving her award from Gordon Brown at the TUC annual conference in Liverpool last September, she praised E.ON over its support for learning reps.

Nicola has been credited with helping to bring thousands of learning opportunities to E.ON colleagues. "A few people said they were interested and it just spiralled from there."

She found the confidence to negotiate with her employers and steer the learning agreement that involved not just Unison but GMB, Unite and Prospect. E.ON agreed to give facility time for reps and members to promote and take part in learning projects throughout the company.

The company has maths and English tests taking place in many of its sites and employees are involved in a range of courses. "If you work in a call centre for E.ON, then your maths and English have to be really good and people tend to want to extend their skills at work or do courses which interest them, such as languages. There's a lot of interest in learning sign language as well," she says.

Life in a call centre can be quite insular, which is why Nicola has been keen to get in people from other parts of the company to demonstrate the range of other career opportunities within the organisation. "There is a huge skills gap for engineers, for example, and they have apprenticeship schemes," she says. "But there are not enough women or ethnic minority workers involved in them. We have them in the call centres, so it makes sense to get people from the engineering academies to talk to us."

There is now a network of more than 25 learning reps at E.ON and Nicola also manages to find time to act as a union steward and sit on Unison's national service group for the energy sector. The company is working with Nicola and the rest of the ULR team to recruit female and minority ethnic staff from its existing workforce to the academies it runs in engineering, sales and marketing, procurement and human resources.

The important role within the union has opened doors and given her the confidence to speak to senior managers and address public meetings. "But for the help I've had from Unison," she says, "I would never have stood up in front of the company's chief executive and done a presentation, or spoken in front of 3,000 people at my union conference."

So far she has been too busy training as a trade unionist to pick up on her own education, but she has a new challenge in mind. "I didn't know about the Open University until I started all this and what I'd really love to do is a degree," she says. And the subject? Trade union studies!