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Small is inaccessible

Big companies willingly embrace the new learing culture but whetting appetites at the far-flung corners of the economy is proving harder, writes Helen Hague.

Employers who keep up with government thinking will realise that these days training has a feel of the last millennium about it. Workforce development har-nessed to lifelong learning is the key to building a skilled, committed and en-thusiastic workforce - and a healthy bottom line.

Widening participation in learning will also boost the regional and national economies, yielding business benefits and greater personal satisfaction for those on the payroll.

The problem is that many businesses - particularly small to medium ones that make up 99 per cent of organisations and employ nearly half the working population - have yet to sign up.

Learndirect, a brand that evolved from Chancellor Gordon Brown's initial vision for the University for Industry, is poised to spread the learning culture to parts of the economy which it has not yet reached, whetting appetites for flexible learning by offering user-friendly packages in learning centres, workplaces and beyond.

High-profile firms are already embracing learndirect. Take Nissan: it won two national training awards last year. The principle of kaizen, or "continuous improvement" has been applied not just to its manufacturing process but also to the people who build the cars. Staff have use of a learning centre on site run by the Automotive Sector Strategic Alliance.

Nissan worked with learndirect to develop packages relevant to the shop floor. These are also available to other firms. Now 2,000 Nissan manufacturing staff are using learndirect on site - and not just for job-specific training.

The learning centre is open from 7am until 1pm so that staff can log on to study before or after shifts. Every manufacturing employee is offered 12 hours' use per year during paid work time, allowing staff to get a taste of on-screen learning.

Steve Pallas, Nissan's training and development manager, says: "Many of our manufacturing staff are non-traditional learners who would never think of going to night class. Learndirect is cutely designed so people can work through modules in 20-minute bursts."

The company gets the benefit through raised skills levels, and employees get the chance to broaden their horizons.

"We've always given people the training they need for the job. But with learndirect the oppor-tunities to learn are much wider," says Pallas.

"Initially, people tended to select production programmes, but now there has been a shift towards computer and life skills.

Tesco, now Britain's biggest private-sector em-ployer, will open its second learning centre in Milton Keynes this month after a pilot scheme at its distribution centre at Welham Green, near Hatfield, developed with Usdaw, the shop-workers' union. These pioneering Tesco learning centres (TLCs) - the initials no doubt chosen to reflect the caring ethos - are supported by learndirect. According to Tesco, these centres could be "rolled out more widely" in future.

Staff at all 780 stores will soon have the chance to learn basic IT skills to "benefit them both in and outside work". Staff at Welham Green have been using the TLC to brush-up reading, writing and maths skills and take a range of other courses.

Dave Picton, 42, who works in the Welham Green warehouse, left school before taking O-levels. He decided to beef up his skills in maths and English and signed up for a basic computer course as well. He says he is a satisfied TLC customer.

"The training offered here has changed my life and given me more confidence at home and at work," he says. "I have a 10-year-old daughter and anything I can do to help her is of interest to me."

The courses Tesco offers include languages, first aid and guitar-playing.

Friends and family of Tesco warehouse workers will also be able to use the Milton Keynes centre, as will the staff from the nearby Tesco stores.

Michele Hepden-Dyer, learning manager at Tesco, says: "We are working towards becoming a learning organisation - giving people the chance to learn. It is our responsibility to give people the opportunity to develop their life skills. Help with basic skills such as reading and writing will benefit people in their life outside work."

With smaller firms, outreach can be pivotal. Stanley's is a family business in Birmingham's jewellery quarter. For the past two years, the firm has been encouraging factory workers to learn computer skills through learndirect. Director Alison Stanley is now a learndirect enthusiast - and so are many of her shopfloor workers, who can hone their computer skills at work for half an hour each week during work time.

"A good few of our factory workers had not used computers before," says Ms Stanley. "I'd recommend learndirect to anybody trying to get up and running on computers. It's had a very good impact on the company - it's flexible and fun."

Learndirect approached the company - which shows that targeted outreach can yield results, both in helping the Government achieve its aim of a computer-literate society, sharpening appetites for lifelong learning and ultimately, if all goes according to plan, boosting the economy by beefing up the nation's skills.

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