Happy Families

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Lessons in the workplace are becoming more common. Some industries are adapting well to the new culture. Martin Whittaker reports

Mrs Beef the farmer's wife finds out how to herd B amp; B guests

With agriculture in decline, Richard Grindal has been keen to explore new ways of diversifying. He and his wife Linda farm 280 acres in a hamlet outside Coventry. They produce beef which they sell through local outlets, and they offer bed and breakfast at their farmhouse. Now they have managed to breathe new life into the ir business with the help of learndirect in partnership with Lantra, the environmental and land-based sector skills council.

Mr Grindal used an online farm diversification tool called New Horizons to make decisions about the business. He was able to use the package from his computer at home, logging on whenever he liked.

"It helped to firm up ideas and see what other people have done in similar situations," he says. "It's reassuring - you realise you're not the only people out there having a go and developing new ideas, or improving on what you already do."

The package has helped the Grindals take their guesthouse more up-market.

They have revamped the rooms and improved facilities to try to attract more business people - the farm is near the junction of the M6 and M69.

According to Lantra, many jobs within the rural sector cannot fit learning into 9-to-5 schedules of mainstream providers, and many live in remote areas and cannot get to a college. The flexibility of learndirect is ideal, allowing people to access learning at home and around busy workloads.

"We've had to diversify the range of ways we reach individuals working in our sector," says Stewart Jardine, Lantra's director of Skills for Business. "Working in partnership with land-based colleges, private training providers and organisations, we've taken a pro-active approach to getting to these individuals using networks which already exist."

Examples include a partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Sheffield Wildlife Trust to help staff access learning via learndirect. At York Auction Centre, a room next to the market ring is now a computer suite open to farmers for everything from basicc literacy to accounting.

Miss Clay the Potter opens her college to the local community

The recent announcement of the closure of two factories with the loss of 1,000 jobs has sent shockwaves through the North Staffordshire Potteries. The ceramics firm, Waterford Wedgwood, is to close the plants that produce its lower-priced Johnson Brothers earthenware and transfer production to the Far East. Some comfort to the stricken community is the culture of learning and training the company has been keen to foster. For six years it has operated a "college in the community", paying for employees' courses but also opening them to the public. The company now hosts a learndirect centre at its main site in Barlaston, which is managed by Stoke-on-Trent college.

The company says its renowned Wedgwood brand will not be affected by the redundancies, and that some production will be consolidated at its factory in Barlaston.

The learning centre is also unaffected and the company is looking to see how it can give training and support for those hit by job losses. A spokesperson for learndirect said: "The centre will remain open to company employees, and will be a useful resource for all staff, whatever their situation."

Since it opened two years ago the centre has had a good take-up of courses split 50:50 between Wedgwood employees and people in the community.

"There's a huge variety of courses: IT is popular, management courses, telephone skills, how to use the Internet, and basic skills," said Terry Hackney of the company's training department. "And the good thing is the flexibility. You choose your course and go at your own pace, and you're not in competition, trying to keep up with everyone else. " "What we're trying to do is offer people an opportunity to keep on learning. We know that if people are in a learning mode, then they will be far more receptive to any technological changes."

Mr Trowel the Builder finds lessons laid on for him

Getting access to workplace learning has never been easy on a building site. But a new online learning facility is offering employees a huge range of courses. A learning network has been developed by the industry's training organisation in partnership with learndirect. And the first major building company to use the network is Balfour Beatty Construction.

The company has some 1,000 employees working on sites throughout the UK.

They move from site to site within their region. Therefore, getting workplace learning to suit them has been difficult. But the new industry network offers staff about 400 courses which they can access from work, home or through any learndirect centre.

"We hope to give people access to learning opportunities wherever they are," says the company's training manager, Tony Ellender. "They're busy people on construction sites. This allows them to learn at their own pace and without necessarily having to find a day to attend a traditional course. We still do lots of those, but this gives them another option."

Staff have access to a wide range of online courses in communication, interpersonal, literacy, management, numeracy and IT skills, which take anything from 15 minutes to 50 hours to complete.

"The learning network appeals to companies and their staff because there are learndirect centres throughout England and Wales for those people who may not have regular access to the internet at home or work," says Irene Williams, learndirect's manager.

"At the centres they can also work without distraction, so it really does offer enormous flexibility."

The Construction Industry Training Board, in partnership with other building companies, is also developing a range of more specific, technical construction courses which will be delivered through a new learning portal called constructdirect.

Ms Pound the banker dispenses learning credits

Barclays Bank has developed a new education and training initiative, realising a vision of its chief executive Matthew Barratt to put career development in the hands of staff. The result is Barclays University - shortened to BU.

"What this says is that the university is about being you," says John Rogers, who managed the project. "It's about whatever you want to learn. A key aspect was that we wanted it to be very much driven by members of staff themselves. We did a very extensive consultation internally about what should this thing be. Staff said: 'We'd like to have more control over what we do, more choice and better access'."

A challenge for Barclays was to provide universal access to learning quickly and cost-effectively, so it approached learndirect.

"What that enabled us to do was get access to any learning provider in every town or village around the country. And it meant that if your staff so chose, they could access learning from home or office PC."

More than two years later, the company has 150 access points through learndirect centres, five regional training centres, a residential facility and its own pound;150 learning account scheme for staff. Where training is job-related, Barclays pays for it. Staff can even access company training material via learndirect.

So, has it achieved the chief executive's vision? "I'd say it has - the test of these things is keeping that going, and it's a huge challenge," says Mr Rogers. "In having the university, we have a group of staff who are taking an interest in their own development needs and are talking control of that.

"If you were to go into our regional centres, there is without question a jaw-dropping moment when you step through the door. You don't need to be told everyone thinks learning is important - it is self-evident."

Mr Steel the engineer welds work and training into one

For R amp; W Cushway amp; Co, a small family-owned manufacturing business, new technology has brought a big change in skills needs on the shop floor.

The company, in Waltham Abbey, Essex, employs more than 40 staff making welding components for the motor industry. Three years ago it achieved Investors in People status and took a long, hard look at staff training.

The advent of new computerised lathes brought the need for new skills .

While operators had been trained to use them, they still lacked basic computer training.

"It was a quantum leap," says Cushway's production manager Roger Hyde. "We were then looking for training for our people and before learndirect it was very expensive. " As well as attending a learning centre in nearby Hoddesdon, staff can access training from work, coming in early to use the firm's PCs. Eleven people have completed learndirect courses and there is now a waiting list.

Four staff are training in word processing and spreadsheets, one in advanced spreadsheets and two are starting courses in computer-aided design. The firm is also embarking on courses in team leadership.

"It has raised the level of everyone's knowledge," says Roger Hyde. "People now know what they're looking at when they see computer reports."

The key, he says, has been flexibility. "Certainly learndirect are very patient with us, and our main criterion is production. We have got to get the job out. Sometimes we say we can be there next week and we can. But if we have a problem, we can go later or the early part of next week. They help us out no end."

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