UNIONS are pivotal to the Scottish Executive's lifelong learning strategy, Wendy Alexander, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, said last week.
Ms Alexander told the first Scottish Union Learning Conference in Glasgow: "We are trying to make every Scot ready for tomorrow's jobs. The trade union movement is an institution of trust with its members and, unless we can work with it to encourage people to take up these opportunities, then we are just playing at it."
She stressed that not only white-collar skills are required. "The two most sought-after categories of workers in Scotland today are software engineers and joiners."
So far only 22 of the 46 bodies affiliated to the STUC have taken up membership of its Learning Forum, established in 1999, though a spokesman conceded it was unlikely that bodies such as the Association of First Division Civil Servants and British Airline Pilots Association would participate.
But Ms Alexander said: "People know that what they are going to earn depends on what they are going to learn. It is important that unions grasp the learning agenda."
She expected to see a doubling in the number of learning centres over the next nine months under the Learndirect Scotland brand name, from 155 to more than 300.
Key to the strategy is the Scottish Union Learning Fund, set up with pound;1.6 million of Executive backing over four years. This is largely concentrated on establishing a network of "learning representatives" in workplaces, whose job is to encourage the uptake of training and individual learning accounts.
Twelve projects are under way while up to 25 submissions are expected to meet next week's deadline for second round funding.
The conference highlighted one current project involving the railway union Aslef with two other unions in a pound;50,000 effort to train 60 learning representatives, complete 200 training needs analyses, deliver basic skills training to 100 union members and encourage take-up of up to 50 individual learning accounts.
Donald Macpherson, Scotrail's head of personnel, said: "In the railway industry we have traditionally had a them and us approach to problems, and this is a significant way in which we can tackle some critical themes on a partnership basis. As people become involved they will have a more positive attitude to learning and skills."
Bob Towers of Aslef defined the learning representative concept in terms of "the Heineken effect, which reaches parts of the organisation that others can't, and the Martini effect of learning any time, any place".
Among the remaining projects, the Educational Institute of Scotland is partnering Paisley University in a pound;48,000 "e-learning for teachers" scheme. "We see this as particularly relevant in terms of the McCrone report and the move towards chartered teacher status," Simon Macaulay, EIS assistant secretary, said.
More than 800 teachers applied for the original allocation of 250 continuing professional development places, which has since been increased to 300. Five out of seven planned learning centres have been established, a virtual centre is being set up to serve rural areas and the union is on track to appoint 32 learning representatives - one for each of its local associations.
Declan McGrath, STUC lifelong learning development officer, said: "We can't do this on our own. We need to build partnerships."