Training for the fire and rescue services to help staff communicate with accident victims with disabilities is just one of the initiatives now being fostered through the Scottish Union Learning Fund (SULF).
The initiative has just received its latest pound;1.6 million boost over the next two years from the Scottish Executive.
The fund is to enable union-led learning opportunities and is forming the basis for the Scottish Union Academy - a quality benchmarking umbrella for such opportunities which the Scottish Trades Union Council intends launching next year. It is all part of the Executive's master plan to promote lifelong learning in the workplace as well as the classroom.
Thirteen unions were successful in bidding for the current tranche of cash - the sixth since the fund, now totalling pound;6.5 million, began in 1999. The Fire Brigades Union in Scotland, for one, is to receive pound;93,000 for its learning promotions work.
Disability training - which is delivered through further education colleges, either in the college or at fire stations - is regarded as vital, Jock Munro, the union's SULF project manager, says.
"When fire officers go to a road accident, they need to be able to communicate as best they can with all victims - regardless of whether they have hearing or visual impairments," Mr Munro says.
Firefighters have also been able to access language training. On one level, this is directly related to the workplace. In Aberdeen, for example, the fishing community contains migrants from Latvia whose first language is Russian. On another level, fire officers have opted to study Spanish to gear them up for foreign holidays.
Mr Munro says: "For someone who has not studied for a long time, a leisure course is often the first step towards further lifelong learning."
Fire engines are now equipped with computerised data systems to help with tasks such as location finding and tracking chemical incidents. IT is therefore a training priority and more than 100 officers have reached Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ) level 3 awards in IT-related areas.
The fund also enables brigades to hire MOLI (mobile online learning initiative) - a bus equipped with computers for a range of learning promotions. "We use the computers not only for basic skills training but also as an information tool to show the range of options available for lifelong learners," Mr Munro says.
Health sector workers in the Royal College of Nursing are also in the process of benefiting from SULF. The union received pound;91,000 for its project on "growing union branches", which is establishing networks of workers with common learning interests - for example, those who are overseas or in residential homes or prisons Stuart Cable, the RCN's senior lifelong learning fellow, comments: "We are aiming to break down the barriers such as lack of access or lack of confidence. This is about building capacity."
Learning on the job is favoured. "Evidence shows that, if we can get people to SVQ level 2, they are then ready to take on responsibility for their own learning," Dr Cable said. "They are self-directed and self-motivated."
The Scottish Union Academy's role will be what Grahame Smith, the STUC's depute general secretary, describes as a "badging" exercise that offers official recognition to course providers for their worker-friendly provision, as well as being a quality kitemark to reassure learners. "There are a number of initiatives in colleges already that have been spearheaded by the unions," Mr Smith says. "Their profile and value need to be highlighted to workers."
To qualify for the badge, courses should be run at a time and a place to suit shift workers; there should be the right advice and support; and there must be the prospect of progression from the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills through the Scottish Qualifications Authority framework and beyond. "The standards will make it clear to colleges what unions require from their courses, while learners can be reassured that courses which meet these standards will be appropriate for them," Mr Smith says.
Building on the work of the STUC's lifelong learning team, a nine-strong skills and lifelong learning team has been established covering the whole of Scotland, taking over the administration of SULF from the executive.
According to Mr Smith, there needs to be a shift in focus away from gearing school-leavers up for the workplace towards on-the-job training. "Valuable skills are being taught at school, but these can be quickly lost if they are not reinforced in the workplace," he says. "There is a constant need for training and retraining which has only just been recognised."