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Training at work not only helps tackle absenteeism, but encourages employees to study further. However, it should not be aimed only at the young or the already well-qualified, writes Neil Merrick

Postal worker Lisa Stevens could not believe it when during one of her first literacy lessons the teacher suggested that she might be dyslexic.

Lisa has been delivering mail in the Burslem area of Stoke-on-Trent for four years and jumped at the opportunity to improve her reading and writing at a learning centre opened last year by the Communication Workers Union (CWU).

But it still came as a surprise to discover that, along with two other employees in her class, she was dyslexic. "I was amazed," she says.

Two-thirds of the 111 staff in the Burslem delivery office have gained qualifications in literacy, numeracy, IT or sign language during the past 12 months. Lisa, who achieved levels 1 and 2 in literacy, admits she was slightly nervous about returning to the classroom more than 15 years after leaving school. "I was good at maths and terrible at English," she says.

"It is difficult to think about nouns, verbs and pronouns again. When you are doing your daily job, you tend to switch off the rest of your brain."

Most lessons are free and delivered by teachers from Stoke-on-Trent college as part of the Skills for Life programme. They are held during work time with Royal Mail agreement.

Dave Condliffe, area union learning representative for the CWU, believes that this helps to boost attendance rates to 90 per cent. "If you put on a course outside working hours you get about 50 per cent," he says.

The CWU is in the process of rolling out Skills for Life across the Royal Mail's other 15 offices in Stoke. At Hanley, where two-thirds of staff are non-English, there is a heavy demand for Esol (English for speakers of other languages). Mr Condliffe could even end up taking some classes himself after training as an Esol teacher because college staff are not allowed to teach people who cannot meet visa rules. "I have had to upskill myself," he says.

Learning, he adds, helps to improve retention, with many staff going on to study other subjects. He is impressed that most people don't require persuasion to brush-up their English and maths. "There is no stigma attached," he says.

About 12,000 people have been trained as union learning reps (ULRs) across the UK. As well as promoting Skills for Life, they try to ensure that employer training reaches as many workers as possible.

Liz Smith, director of unionlearn, the Trades Union Congress's newly rebranded learning service, says ULRs help employees to take the critical first step into learning, often by acting as peer group mentors: "As they are in a similar position to the people they represent, they can encourage them to get involved in activities they wouldn't otherwise do."

Once employees have overcome any confidence barriers, they are more likely to undertake training that boosts their careers and join other courses. "If people have stressful jobs, they may enjoy doing yoga, art or learning Spanish," she adds.

Twenty years ago, the car manufacturer Ford introduced the UK's first employee development scheme under which staff were given money to spend on learning at colleges and elsewhere. While such schemes have by no means become common place, some firms followed Ford's lead.

More than 10 per cent of the 150 staff at Coleman's factory in Norwich receive up to pound;200 per year through its Nice Little Learner scheme for lessons in driving or golf, as well as activities such as scuba diving.

It is expected that courses take place outside company time, although employees may be allowed time off for exams. Human resources manager Ashley Reynolds says it is difficult for staff to find time for regular lessons, especially if they work shifts, but Coleman's supports them as much as possible. "It is based on the theory that any learning enriches your life," he says.

In spite of Skills for Life and schemes such as that at Coleman's, Alistair Thomson, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education's senior policy officer, is not convinced there is any more learning taking place at work now than in the past. Most opportunities tend to fall to younger people in full-time jobs, along with employees who are already well-qualified. "More than half of staff in the NHS get two days or less training per year. If you are a consultant or a senior nurse, you get an awful lot," he says.

Bob Fryer, who chaired a major government inquiry into lifelong learning in the late 1990s, joined the NHS last year as national director for widening participation in learning. He agrees that the pound;5 billion which the NHS spends training its 1.3 million employees each year must be more fairly distributed. "Two-fifths of our staff say they get little or no opportunity for learning at work," he says. "Our job is to develop strategies and opportunities that engage all our staff, not just 60 per cent."

Each year, about 230,000 employees take part in the NHS's learning account scheme or receive funding for NVQs. All staff are also entitled to a personal development plan.

"The workplace is a terrific environment for learning because people spend so much of their waking time there alongside like-minded individuals," says Mr Fryer. "If people receive support from managers and union learning reps, they take it up with great passion."

As 2006 is European Year of Worker Mobility, employees should in theory receive greater opportunity to train for new jobs. At Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead, a cleaner and a porter are both training as nurses after getting an initial taste for adult learning through Skills for Life.

Nearly 200 employees are attending literacy and numeracy classes while others have joined IT courses. Maria Alberts, Unison's ULR at the hospital, says it has become a better place to work as a result of learning. "People feel more confident about themselves," she says. "Many people with low paid jobs come here having not done well at school. We are helping them to believe that they can do something else. It's a real morale booster."

Up until a few months ago, Linda Widd did not know how to switch on a computer, let alone download emails from her five-year-old granddaughter.

But after attending a 10-week course in Scarborough as part of a joint initiative by three trade unions, she is feeling much more confident about IT. "I didn't want to get left behind," says Mrs Widd, who has worked at the town's Tesco store for 21 years. "Now I can go on the internet and have all sorts of information at my fingertips. I do my banking online and I understand spreadsheets."

The Scarborough Adult Initiative for Learning, which got underway last September, offers staff free courses in the workplace as well as at a local community centre. It is run by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), the GMB (Britain's General Union) and Unison, the public service union.

Mrs Widd, who took her IT course at the community centre, enjoyed learning alongside local authority staff and employees from other stores. She is due to retire from Tesco's canteen in two years but first plans to take a further IT course and study sign language. "I came out of school without any qualifications and thought that was how it was going to stay," she says. "Nearly every job asks for basic IT. People don't see themselves staying at Tesco all their life but they can't afford to pay for learning because they are on limited incomes."

James Rees, education officer at Usdaw, says many of its members are on "the wrong side of the digital divide" but are entitled to free or subsidised learning because they received limited state support in school or college. "We see this as social justice," he says. "If people return to learning and build their confidence, it leads to a more adaptable workforce."

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