Raymond Ross opens a two-part series on how employers are taking the initiative over workforce education and training
A COMBINATION of altruism and the desire for a good company profile drives the pound;2 million annual investment which goes into Scottish Power Learning, probably the best known of the major work-based learning organisations now operating in a sphere once the principal domain of further education.
Established in 1996 to enhance learning opportunities for Scottish Power staff and thereby increase self-reliance, flexibility, productivity and the organisation's ability to cope with change, the ambitious programme also includes promoting the company's image as a caring employer which supports its communities. Customers who experienced delays in being reconnected by Scottish Power after recent storms may recognise at least the rhetoric.
Jack Kelly, managing director of SPL, says: "Our aim is to further our partnership with the trade unions and develop positive relationships between management and staff and to foster goodwill in the communities in which the company operates by providing support for local learning activities. We are putting something of our resources and success back into the community, especially helping the unemployed with training. We operate through Scottish Power and in England through Manweb and Southern Water. I believe we do a power of good. In Scotland alone we must be one of the biggest providers of vocational education."
In fact, SPL operates more than 50 open learning centres throughout Britain providing some 700 different learning programmes.
More than 57 per cent of Scottish Power staff have so far enrolled on open learning courses and more than 500 unemployed people have benefited from training programmes covering 10 vocational areas. Sixteen Prince's Trust Volunteer programmes are run each year assisting some 200 employed and unemployed people with personal development.
SPL also provides Outward Bound courses for adults with learning difficulties. Pupils and teachers are involved in school partnerships. The programme was voted Community Initiative of the Year in Utility Week magazine's industry achievement awards.
Mr Kelly is understandably proud: "We started by looking at the company's values, about how we actually do our business, and an important part of that was community relations. We decided to move the agenda forward with the unions who wanted to bargain about skills. We said: 'No, let's not bargain, let's deliver.'
"SPL developed the way it has because there was a fit between an under-utilised learning facility within the company and a desire to combat unemployment, loss of skills and problems in schools in deprived areas. We've shaped it and delivered it and we're proud of it. I have never said it before but, yes, there is a real pride in the organisation about SPL and we all get a good buzz out of that."
There are only 34 staff directly involved in co-ordinating, monitoring and supporting the extensive network. "The actual delivery is done within the group's five divisions. Courses range from IT, business administration, customer service, call centre skills, four craft programmes and warehouse and stores courses to the enhancement of 'soft' or 'life' skills delivered in a number of different ways," Mr Kelly says.
More than 8,500 students have gone through the SPL's Open Learning Centre in Cathcart, Glasgow, while 2,000 employees and family members have undertaken courses. Paul McKelvie, SPL's regional manager for Scotland, says: "Eighty to 90 per cent of our effort is aimed at employability. We give across-the-board training in broader skills that would appeal to any employer.
"An unemployed student might come in with a specific aim towards IT training. We deliver that but alongside it don't neglect things like CV writing, presentation skills and courses like the Outward Bound ones which develop self-esteem. It's bringing these together that provides the best opportunity for them to get a job."
Liz McGregor, group manager for learning development, says that 70-75 per cent of those who go through SPL vocational training find a job or go on to further education. "You have to remember that some of the youngsters who come to us - most are around the age of 16 or 17 - are not yet ready for work and we put them through pre-vocational training with the Prince's Trust scheme to build self-esteem, and so on. A lot have real social problems."
A target area is the transition from school to work. Mr McKelvie says: "We are setting up courses in conjunction with eight schools across central Scotland, where we intend to work with senior pupils who are going into the world of work rather than on to further or higher education in order to develop core skills which will make them more employable."
So far 84 Scottish pupils have benefited from this "partnership approach" with schools and 96 are being enrolled between now and March. Offering individual training to suit pupils' needs, the modular system begins with a "development day" at one of SPL's learning centres after which a pupil may be asked to come back for one or more sessions depending on individual needs.
"We call it a development day and not an assessment day because that title might frighten off pupils with low self-esteem or at least have them arriving with an 'exam or assessment attitude' which is not what we want," Liz McGregor says. "They are treated as Scottish Power employees for the day. They are in a working environment and they receive work experience."
Two schools involved this month are Kilmarnock Academy and St Thomas Aquinas in Edinburgh. SPL is providing Kilmarnock with an IT resource which can be used by all pupils as well as being available to feeder primaries and local unemployed people free of charge.
"We are providing money, IT teacher training and hardware. It's up to the school how they run the centre in their own way but we are hopeful that senior pupils will take it up and pass on their knowledge to the community," Mr Kelly says. "The St Thomas Aquinas centre is broader based than Kilmarnock. Embracing computer-based learning it will also focus on core skills development like presentation and interview skills."
With so much going on, what is the future for SPL as one of Scotland's biggest providers of vocational education? Mr Kelly says: "We are not sure exactly where we will develop but certainly there are no plans for an SPL college or university. We are delivering as much as we can at the moment.
"It's true we are learning to do more with what we have got. But there is a finite limit and we are getting near it. We concentrate on employability because that is the need where we can add value."
Mr Kelly is sure of one thing: "We don't know how to teach children. That's not a core skill. We are not here to replace the education system. Vocational training is our area. If other companies were to join us we could do more.
"There are two other companies interested, though I can't name names. But the area would still remain very much vocational training. We think we have a good track record."
Further information from Scottish Power Learning on 0141 636 4787.