If you think learning is costly, try ignorance
The right to learn is taking its place in industrial relations bargaining alongside the right to a decent wage and pension. Good employers see staff training as an investment. For enlightened staff and unions, training is a signal for better pay since it improves job and promotion prospects.
Recent redundancy packages - notably in the steel and car industries - have had skills retraining built into them. In times of economic plenty, training can lead to quick dividends; in times of recession it equips staff and companies for better times ahead.
Chris Banks, former managing director of Coca-Cola UK and now director of his own food and drinks company, Big Thoughts Ltd, has a perfect example of the adage: "If you think learning is costly, try ignorance."
Untrained staff were "at best" around 50 per cent efficient handling new packaging machines he had installed. Basic staff training from the suppliers raised it to 80 per cent. But where teams were equipped by the engineers to take over training in-house, machines ran at 95 per cent efficiency. "We've audited this and have proved it works," he says. "None of this is accredited but we are starting now and are looking at how we can do that."
He knows certificates count, they give credentials and status. But who accredits the work? What if it costs too much? And what if staff lack even the most basic skills to cope with the training? For Mr Banks, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council's young persons committee, the answer is partnership with training agencies that manage economies of scale across many industries.
That is why the LSC, through its 47 local councils, is committed to working with learndirect, since it was created to provide just such help. It is a network of e-learning services, clustered in learning "hubs" to reach industry, offer training advice and improve people's basic skills needs.
Big Thoughts Ltd, with 100 staff, is typical of the small to medium enter-prises that learndirect must reach if the new planned skills strategy for the nation is to succeed, says Ivan Lewis, the minister who has been responsible for developing adult skills. "We hold great store by their ability to do so and see learndirect having a central role. We want to see strong partnerships with organisations such as the sector skills councils (created to set training standards for industry)."
Indeed, learndirect sees links with these councils as vital - both share an aim to reach small to medium-sized companies. An example of a very successful partnership can be seen in the media, dominated by small employers and freelance staff.
The media is a notoriously difficult industry to enter. Now a new careers initiative to help people get in is being held up as a model for other sectors.
Skillset, the sector skills council for the broadcast media, and Bectu, the industry trade union, joined forces with learndirect in March 2002 to offer a career and skills advice helpline called skillsformedia.
A network of advisers from the film, television, radio and interactive media industries range from make-up artists to former broadcast journalists. They work alongside 22 learndirect advisers.
If someone calls learndirect saying they want to work in television, the adviser gives general advice before put-ting them over to an industry specialist.
The specialists are also available to those seeking skills or careers advice. Since its start, the service has taken around 5,000 calls and become the central point for media careers advice throughout England and Wales. A similar line is to be launched in Scotland.
Ilka Walkley, skillsformedia's manager, says: "We really needed to make our service more accessible for people who would not normally know about careers, or would not be encour-aged to come into our industry."
Learndirect played a key role. "We wanted to go with it because it wasn'ta traditional call centre, and their advisers are trained careers advisers."
Pablo Lloyd, learndirect's executive director, says skillsformedia is regarded as a model of good practice for other industries. "It's extremely cost-effective for them because the infrastructure's set up. We've got call centres, we've got a web page and a very extensive database of courses."
The initiative is also a model one because it represents a three-way part-nership of learndirect, employers and the unions.
Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, points out that companies spend pound;23.5 billion a year on staff training. "But there are still too many adults with low skills, particularly poor literacy and numeracy. One in five does not have the reading skills expected of an 11-year-old."
While the employers have the huge resources, the unions have spotted the potential for their members. Thou-sands of employees now enrol for online courses - thanks to their trade union.
The TUC runs 40 learning centres for learndirect. As well as those based in companies, there are centres at union offices and in FE colleges with a trades union education unit.
Three years ago, say union leaders, only senior and middle managers took advantage of the training. But attitudes are changing with the help of union learning representatives, says Alex Rowley, who manages learndirect's trades union hub.
"There is definitely more support for people who want to learn in the workplace. Union learning represent-atives can organise things around a learning centre and look at wider issues of workforce development."
More than 4,500 union learning representatives were appointed in England over the past five years. Since April, they have been entitled to paid time off to advise employees. But they still tend to be found among larger employers, he says.
One of the key priorities now is to encourage learning in smaller companies. To help this, Mr Rowley says, large firms should should pass on information about learndirect to smaller firms in their supply chain.
Centres on industrial estates could be opened to a wider number of local small to medium-sized enterprises.
The best way to identify basic skills needs, says Mr Rowley, is through confidential skill checks. Better literacy and numeracy, along with the opportunity to gain level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications, can revitalise workers and provide lasting benefits for the company.
"For individuals, there are real benefits to be gained from learning. But the evidence coming through from employers is that morale and industrial relations improve across the workforce," he adds.