Course uptake has trebled since unions won new rights. Steve Hook reports
Unions and employers were this week celebrating the success of learning reps in improving the basic skills of shopfloor staff.
Course enrolment has trebled to 25,000 a year since union learning reps were given legal rights last April to spend time helping their colleagues to get trained.
Industry accepts that their new status, like that of health and safety reps, could lead to increased recruitment to unions. But it regards this as a small price to pay for cracking the basic skills problem which has frustrated human resources departments. The reps enjoy the same rights in Wales, where the scheme is funded directly by the Welsh Assembly.
In the rail industry there are signs that the skills agenda is bringing competing unions together in an unprecedented way as they pool resources to tackle their members' skills levels.
But with 80 per cent of private-sector workers not in union membership, and question marks over the adequacy of funding for basic skills through the further education system, the limitations of the scheme are beginning to show.
The Confederation of British Industry stresses there are plenty of government-funded alternatives but admits that, without a union to advise them, many employers simply do not understand how to get their hands on the cash - even if they are aware of its existence.
The Learning and Skills Council, which controls the funds, remains a little-known brand in small and medium-sized firms despite its size. It spends almost pound;9 billion a year on FE and work-related training in England.
Industry points out that it spends pound;23.4bn a year on staff training, nearly three times as much as the LSC.
But the CBI says union branches are often in the best position to tackle the toughest job in staff development - convincing employees that they need basic skills help.
And, however much businesses may support the Government's skills strategy, it seems small firms need the same kind of advice which the advice and guidance service Connexions is offering teenagers if they are to access the help that is available.
Anne Lindsay, a senior policy adviser at the CBI, said: "The union learning fund is just one of a number of ways of accessing subsidised training for your workforce. But in small and medium-sized companies, which are less likely to be unionised, there is often less awareness among managers about what is available and, frankly, they often don't have time to find out.
"There are the employer training pilots and the courses in basic skills which are available through learndirect and FE colleges.
"They are out there but employers don't always know about them. The point about the learning reps is that unions have developed a level of expertise around training and they can share this with the employers."
Those employers who have embraced union learning reps are feeling the benefit in terms of morale on the shop floor.
Weetabix, the Northamptonshire cereal manufacturer, has received letters of thanks from members of staff who have felt able to apply for new jobs within the company as a result of the training they have been guided towards.
There is evidence that, like colleges, the union learning reps scheme is offering a second chance to those who have been failed by the inadequacies of the schools system. Unions seem able to offer an inexhaustible list of examples of how the scheme has changed people's lives.
Suffolk County Council care worker Chloe Blanchard, 26, was bullied at school and left without qualifications. She took part in lifelong learning courses run by her union, Unison, and is now a project worker helping others to take up courses.
The scheme's other successes include Daljit Singh Pansar, 45, a learning rep at Keighley college in West Yorkshire. He arrived in the UK from India 27 years ago unable to speak English.
As a Unison learning rep, his own success has helped him to inspire colleagues at the college, where he works as a lab technician.
Robert Peters, a technician colleague at Keighley, said: "Daljit kept encouraging me to go on courses and in the end I did because I saw how much he was changing from his own studies."
The question now is how much further this activity can expand at a time when colleges claim adult basic skills and Level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) courses lack sufficient funding.
The Association of Colleges has urged the Government to loosen the rules about which basic skills courses are eligible for public funding, so that more attractive packages can be offered to workers who would be loath to admitthat they are learning to read and write.
While colleges point to funding problems, Ivan Lewis, the adult skills minister, insists the money is there. Whatever the truth, the perception is that the cash is not reaching its target.
The CBI says provision is patchy, with some "bottlenecks" around the country, and it shares the TUC's belief that more courses will be needed to meet the extra demands the union learning rep scheme is placing on the system.