A union-led workplace education and training programme with over 1.57 million learners in the last nine years is under the spotlight as this week’s public spending review promises further cuts.
The Union Learning Fund (ULF) is managed by the Trades Union Congress and provides courses and qualifications in everything from health and safety to communication skills and mentoring apprentices.
Total ULF funding in 2014-15 was £17.5 million, of which £15.3 million came from central government.
The ULF is complemented by union learning reps. Elected by colleagues and recognised by their employer, they promote learning in the workforce and identify training needs.
Bob Holt began driving for First Bus UK in Cheetham, Manchester 37 years ago. When one of the First Bus directors proposed to Unite – the union that represents most workers at the company – that it open an onsite learning centre, Holt, a lifelong trade unionist, and his colleague Paul Brown successfully stood for election as union learning reps.
“I knew that many employees had great potential and just needed some encouragement to get back into learning,” said Holt. “So that I could provide training I undertook many courses myself at various levels including literacy, numeracy and English as a second language (ESOL). ESOL was important as many migrant workers have come to work on the buses and have done jobs that otherwise would remain very difficult to fill.
“The directors suggested Saturday morning sessions and my colleagues, Paul Brown, Stuart Smith and myself, ran the sessions over many weeks.”
Among those to benefit were Gosia Piasecka and Jola Jodlowwska who came to Manchester from Poland in the middle of the last decade as they sought to find work at a time of high unemployment at home.
Both women started as cleaners with First Bus and attended the ESOL classes. Jodlowwska said: “The courses were good fun as the learning environment is very relaxed. I was encouraged by other workers to do the training as they all stressed how learning is a big part of workplace activities here and the courses are arranged around your shifts.”
Piasecka added: “The courses have helped me to integrate into the local community and mean I no longer require a translator at the doctor’s or bank.
“Bob has helped make the learning centre a place people want to visit, to attend classes, use the computers and improve their skills and education. He has personally helped many people including me.”
First Bus has recognised Holt’s efforts by making him a project worker for lifelong learning, responsible for the oversight of nine union learning centres in its Manchester depots.
Piasecka has also gone on to do well at her workplace, achieving English and maths Level 2 City and Guilds and an initial teacher training qualification. After qualifying as a driver she has been seconded to providing NVQ training to more than 40 First Bus employees.
British workers at First Bus have also benefited from the ULF. Stephan Ralph, who left college early and began working at First Bus’s Heywood depot as a driver in 2005, said: “I wanted to earn a living but when I saw the union learning centre that was backed by the company at Bury it encouraged me back into education as it was built around my work and it was easily accessible.”
Ralph became a union learning rep himself and in 2012 gained a first class degree in education and inclusion from Liverpool Hope University.
“I believe that if the initial development had not taken place at work I would never have got my degree and improved my career,” said Ralph, who is now employed by First Bus as a performance manager. He said he is “keen to see other employees undertake training both for their own benefit and the company’s, as it increases people’s morale, which must be good for their health, wellbeing and workplace performance”.
Clare Quinton, human resources business partner at brewing company Molson Coors (UK) acknowledged the value of union-led workplace learning. She said: “The learning agreement we signed with Unite is a great example of a win-win situation for both the company and the employees. The employee benefits from the opportunity to improve their skills, while the company will reap the rewards in terms of engagement and increased confidence.”
According to Kenny Barron, head of lifelong learning at Unite: “The ULF is crucial to ensure that thousands of workers and their families can access learning opportunities to embark on a learning journey. It will be a big blow if there are cuts to funding.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business and Industry, which funds the Union Learning Fund, said: “We recognise its potential to support employees in the workplace. An exercise to evaluate bids for the 2016-17 funding period has just been concluded and we hope to announce the results by the end of the year. Decisions will be dependent on the outcome of the spending review.”
Photo: Stephan Ralph (left), Jola Jodlowwska, Gosia Piasecka and Bob Holt