MORE than half of callers to the Government's learning and careers helpline fail to get through on the first attempt.
The monthly average for a successful first-time connection to Learning Direct is just 46 per cent, but an evaluation of the service's first year published this month reveals wide variations. In February this year only a third of callers got through first time, compared to 70 per cent in December, the least busy month.
Learning Direct was launched in February 1998 as a key part of the University of Industry. Intended to provide impartial, free advice on learning and work., it handled more than 405,000 calls between March 1998 and February 1999, well over the target of 250,000 calls.
Simon Bysshe and Professor David Parsons, authors of the report commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, say the "chances of connecting to Learning Direct are something of a lottery" and that callers need to be persistent if they want to get through.
Only 19 per cent got through on the second or third attempt and 58 per cent of callers each month encounter an engaged tone the first time they ring. About one in four give up.
"There is considerable cause for concern over the difficulties which callers appear to have in connecting to the helpline, and the implications this may have not only for access but also for the credibility of the service," Bysshe and Parsons say.
They also express concern about the number of out-of-hours calls and suggest that opening times could be extended or operate around the clock.
Despite these concerns, callers were pleased with the service - more than 90 per cent said call handlers understood their needs and were helpful.
However, more than one in three said they did not get the information they needed.
The typical caller was female (66 per cent of the 6,000 users surveyed were women), white (only 13 per cent of callers are from ethnic minorities) and aged between 26 and 35 years (35 per cent of users).
Thirty-six per cent of users were graduates, while less than eight per cent had few or no qualifications - a group Bysshe and Parsons say were under represented. Six of out ten were employed or self-employed, but a significant number of unemployed people rang in.
Close to half of callers were using Learning Direct as a referral service for courses at further education colleges.
The authors say the helpline's real success seemed to be in getting both employed and unemployed people on to vocational courses.
But they said there was also some evidence of helping to get people back into work.
However, the authors point out that: "Learning Direct is better at dealing with learning enquiries than with enquiries about careers and job search, self-employment and other employment opportunities."
The University for Industry wants the service to handle 1.5 million calls a year by April 2000, but Bysshe and Parsons warn that Learning Direct's future development needs to be carefully managed if it is not to become "a victim of its own success".
Jim Reid, the UFI's director of policy development, said some of the issues raised in the evaluation were due to the higher than expected number of calls, but accepted it was important to improve the quality of the database.
He said the helpline would be supplemented by an online service next year, making information more readily available to careers advisers and others.
The UFI will be in full national operation by Autumn 2000.
Learning Direct is on 0800 100 900 or www.ufiltd.co.uk.
'Evaluation of Learning Direct', by Simon Bysshe and Professor David Parsons, The HOST Consultancy. DFEE Research Report No. 132, pound;4.95 from 0845 602 2260 or email: dfee@ prologistics.co.uk.