A hospital cleaner who gained her first qualification 14 years after leaving school, a retired footballer now making a career in the law and a bus driver who learned to read properly for the first time in his forties were just some of the human stories behind the Union Learning Fund (ULF) national awards.
The most outstanding schemes for getting people back into learning – in or outside the workplace – included learning centres in a Sikh temple, mail depots and telephone exchanges.
"Improving skills in this way has helped to reduce rates of absence and staff turnover and increased productivity, so it is not surprising that the ULF has received such strong support from employers," Pat McFadden, the minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, said at the ceremony for the awards to celebrate the achievements of ULF initiatives over the past 12 years. "For thousands of employees these initiatives have brought more self-confidence, better morale, an improved ability to do their jobs and a greater desire to get on in the companies for which they work."
Among the winners of the awards presented by Lenny Henry, the comedian and a life-long learner, at Congress House in central London last week was a highly successful reskilling initiative in Boots' distribution centres prior to a major re-organisation in which some workers would lose their jobs. Almost two thirds of the staff of centres around the country have used the £300 allowance from Boots towards courses which ranged from English, maths and ICT to plumbing and learning to drive a fork-lift truck.
Usdaw, the union of shop, distributive and allied workers, acted in partnership with Boots to help staff prepare for change, establishing a union learning rep in each distribution centre. "Boots has been around for a very long time and so there were people who had worked there for decades facing redundancy with no qualifications to prove what they could do," said Jeff Broome, Usdaw's president. "It was a chance for them to get their transferable skills recognised through certificates."
And for many low-paid migrant cleaners the Union Learning Fund has been important not just to help them improve their English and numeracy but to give them a voice and help integrate them into the community.
Footballers, boxers and BMX bikers are among the young sportsmen and women who have been encouraged to consider alternative careers when they retire from professional sport through learning advice and support provided by the Professional Footballers' Association's embedded learning schemes.
Employers spoke of the benefits that increased learning opportunities for staff had brought to their organisations.
"The passion and positivity around learning has been astonishing and a pleasure to see," said Matt Burton, Boots UK learning and development manager.
Neil Scales, the director general of Merseytravel, said: "When we started, I didn't know I was going to get reduced sick absence; I didn't realise I was going to get all this increased motivation and unlock the potential of my staff."
Award: Employer Engagement
Winner: Merseylearn joint union project
Merseytravel coordinates public transport and owns and operates the Mersey Tunnels and the Mersey Ferries. A strong partnership between unions and the employer has developed a learning culture across the organisation.
Around 96 per cent of staff are now qualified at or beyond Level 2 (five or more A*-C GCSEs or equivalent).
Award: Skilling for Change
Winner: Usdaw-Boots UK
A large scale restructuring of Boot's national network of distribution centres meant redeployment of staff and job losses. Usdaw and the company helped staff reskill and prepare for change by investing in learning. The company provided £300 for each employee and "matched time" of an hour off for every two hours of training. Over two thirds of the staff were involved and in some distribution centres it reached 90 per cent.
Award: Union Learning Representatives
The CWU (the communications union) won its award for the way the union learning reps have become embedded in the union structure. The reps have taken community learning to a wide range of people through learning centres at a wide range of venues, including the Sikh temple in Wolverhampton and at Port Vale Football Club.
Award: Equality and Diversity
Unite helped to bring learning to London's migrant domestic cleaners who are some of the lowest paid in the country. Lack of ability to communicate in English was a major barrier and there was a strong take-up of classes in literacy and numeracy from workers from a wide range of countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Poland and Bolivia.
Award: Supporting Learners with Information, Advice and Guidance
Winner: Federation of Entertainment Unions
Working together, the unions within the sector set up a training hub to provide information, advice and guidance for freelancers working in media and entertainment. A range of courses provides information on rates for work, legal issues, networking, tax and bookkeeping skills and building a career portfolio in an uncertain world.
Award: Informal Adult Learning
A range of innovative projects has re-introduced many adults to learning and many have gone on to further courses supported by the union's network of union learning reps.
Projects include the popular "living book" for which Unison members in the North-west trained to take their stories to other people with an emphasis on diversity and equality.
Award: Skills for Life
Winner: Fire Brigades Union
Families and friends of members of the union are encouraged to visit the Fire Brigades Union learning centre in Morpeth, Northumberland which supports employees from all parts of the fire and rescue service. Management provided the premises, internet, maintenance and renewal of computers while the ULF money went towards a project worker and six computers.
Award: Apprenticeships and Young Workers
Winner: Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians
Ucatt and ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for construction, negotiated an agreement to increase the number of apprenticeships for young people. One of the successes was at Capital Training, a company providing computer training, where the union worked with the employer to get involved with young people including young offenders and children excluded from school.
Award: Progression and Professional Development
Over the past three years more than 7,500 members of ATL, the education union, have accessed continual professional development through the Union Learning Fund. Popular topics have included behaviour management and raising boys' achievements. The union has secured a national partnership with Edge Hill University which provides opportunities for foundation degrees and MAs.
Award: Learning Centres
Winner: Prison Officers Association
The POA has set up a large network of union learning reps and 11 learning centres around the country. Courses have ranged from teaching qualifications to playing the bagpipes. In Liverpool a partnership with Mersey Care NHS Trust provides specialist mental health and learning disability services for local people and staff.
Award: Working with Sectors
Winner: Public and Commercial Services Union
The union has built up good relationships with the sector skills councils and promoted literacy and numeracy screenings for staff. It has pressed for more emphasis on increasing the wider life-long learning opportunities of the workforce and raising the low targets within the sector for the level of life skills.