This week, a new right to request time to train became law and, according to a poll commissioned by unionlearn, the Trades Union Congress's (TUC) learning and training organisation, there is a real appetite to take it up. More than two-fifths of workers say they would be likely to make use of the new right, including the third of employees who currently receive no training at all.
The poll shows that younger employees, aged 18-34, are the most likely to take up the new right (60 per cent), as are those with a degree (50 per cent).
This right could prove a vital tool in allowing employees a proper hearing from their boss, if they can prove that the training will improve their performance and be beneficial to business. The training could lead to qualifications or be used to develop skills relevant to their job. It could include, for example, courses such as English for speakers of other languages (Esol). Employers can turn down the request only where there is a sound business reason. The Government estimates that up to a million workers could benefit in the next three years.
It is important that the unions, colleges and the further education sector work with employers to foster a culture in which training in the workplace is valued. The similar right to request flexible working resulted in millions of employees making requests, with more than 90 per cent being agreed by employers. Knowing that they have the right to ask will encourage millions of employees, putting pressure on employers who do not train to think again and helping all employees to get a fair chance to improve their skills.
A report, Right to Training is on the Right Track, published this week by the TUC, using the latest data from the Labour Force Survey, found that fewer than one in 10 employees without a qualification are offered regular training, and this trend has deteriorated slightly over the past decade. Young employees are losing out - over the past 10 years, there has been a significant decline in their access to training, down from 36 per cent to 31 per cent.
Unionlearn is running a project to promote this new right and to train its representatives to inform and negotiate with employers. Learning and skills are not just "soft" issues. Training will become even more of a hot topic, and the learning agenda is central to the trade union agenda.
So why is it so important? While last month's first National Strategic Skills Audit by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that there is an unprecedented increase in the number of people with qualifications, it said that the number of people reported as "not fully proficient" at their jobs increased from 1.3 million in 2005 to 1.7 million in 2009. And, it found, there are still serious skills shortages, particularly in high-level and technical skills and leadership. At the other end of the spectrum, there are far too many people without the basic skills needed as a first step for career progression.
So if you or your colleagues believe they have a case for more training, remember: all you have to do is ask.
Tom Wilson, Director, unionlearn.