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Firms link up with unions on training

Ngaio Crequer reports on a regional initiative to encourage vocational education

Employers are linking up with trade unions in the South-west in a project to provide more training for the area's workforce.

Trade unions and employers will incorporate training as part of their negotiation packages, as part of the project developed by the Western Training and Enterprise Council (WESTEC) and the South West TUC. Workers will be encouraged to take Modern Apprenticeship and National Vocational Qualifications, and Investors in People will be promoted among the companies joining the partnership.

It is estimated that there are around 400,000 trade unionists in the south west, an audience that the TECs have largely failed to address. The project will raise awareness of the work of the TECs among trade unions, increase training opportunities among trade unionists, and encourage trade unionists to identify training as a negotiating issue.

Nigel Costley, regional secretary of the TUC, is also on the board of directors of WESTEC. He said: "TECs have tended to concentrate their firepower on employers when developing initiatives on training. They recognise they have not made the same effort with employees through the trade union route.

"Within unions, training has always been important, but it has become increasingly so because people are insecure in their jobs and recognise they need new skills to give them more opportunities. If we can develop skills this is good for the individual, for business and for the economy as a whole "Unions can play a valuable part in this. Our role is to address a trade union audience with a credibility that a TEC cannot, because they are perceived as being employer-led, and focusing on the boss. We can also help to demystify the jargon that surrounds training," he said.

Unions could help workers to understand company objectives, he said. "The appraisal in Investors in People scares the life out of a lot of people because the last time they came across something like it, half the workforce was made redundant. Assessment and appraisal are not seen as positive things but if you are serious about training you have to address people's needs."

The project in the South-west, called Bargaining for Skills is one of 10 throughout the country and is a spin-off from a national accord signed between the TEC National Council and the TUC.

According to John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, unions need to work with employers and TECs "so that every company is a learning organisation and every worker a learner".

The TUC says there is a clear correlation between the presence of a union in a workplace and the incidence of training the workers receive. "There is also evidence that managements that have shared decision-making over skills acquisition have been the most successful in transforming workplace attitudes to training and to change."

There are now union directors on three-quarters of TEC boards. Both employers and unions have found that close partnership on issues such as training have led to improved industrial relations and made the management of change less threatening.

WESTEC will manage the project in the southwest on behalf of six TECs. Each one is giving Pounds 10,000 each towards the scheme and the TUC is making a contribution of Pounds 20,000 'in kind'. All union representatives across the region will be briefed about TEC programmes. Trade unions will be encouraged to bring forward initiatives on training, educational links and equal opportunities that support the aims of the south west TECs. The project will contract with the TUC Education service to provide additional delivery and support through their network of college-based education provision.

Richard Barnfield, chief executive of WESTEC said it was clear that the TUC and his organisation had a common agenda. "The TEC's agenda is to promote enterprise and competitiveness and the TUC is very committed to that. Investors in People, youth training, Modern Apprenticeships, they are all about being enterprising and ensuring world-class performance. The TUC are just as aware as we are of the world competitiveness nature of business. There is a synergy if two organisations are working together.

"I was involved in industrial relations in the Midlands in the Seventies. The kind of partnership we have now could not have happened then. If people are singing from the same hymnsheet then we can do business.

"The trade unions know there has been a reduction in work-based training because of the recession and with them we want to promote more vocational routes as an alternative to sitting in the classroom.

"A particular sadness in recent years has been the closure of some of the old vocational routes, such as the old apprenticeships. There has to be equality of esteem between the academic and vocational route. This is something trade unions understand very well. We think this project will fly and be of benefit to the South-west economy," he said.

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