Saturday courses signal a turning point for truckers
John, from Preston, Lancashire, has been driving since he was 20. "It's all I've really known for the past 14 years," he said. "If I was to have another job I'd have to be computer literate.
"I wanted to do a course before - but because of the nature of the job we do, being a couple of nights away in the week, working long hours, you never have the time.
"Your only education is listening to the radio, reading newspapers and trying to teach yourself."
Now a turning point is in sight for John and fellow truckers. Last year he began attending the Transport amp; General Workers' Union's regional office in Salford on Saturdays, for tuition in information technology.
The sessions are open to drivers and their families and John brings his nine-year-old step-daughter Hayley. Now he has moved on to a course in integrated business studies.
"It's another string to my bow," he said. "A lot of drivers would like to do this. But many employers can't afford the time for you to be off."
The courses are part of a project run by the TGWU with City College, Manchester, to identify learning and training needs for the road transport sector.
The scheme was run with a grant from the Union Learning Fund, which won a pound;6 million boost from David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, last year.
Now because of the success of the scheme in the North-west, the TGWU has put in a further bid to extend it to lorry drivers nationwide.
Along with construction workers and dockers, drivers are seen by the union as a forgotten sector in terms of access to education.
The project's aim was to identify the training needs and interests of road haulage workers.
Twenty-one shop stewards took a course in training needs analysis, and then carried out a survey among 120 of their members.
The survey found that three quarters had no qualifications apart from their HGV licences and a quarter had no training in their current job.
When asked if they would consider attending a course to improve their literacy or numeracy, 38 per cent said yes. And 47 per cent said they would like to learn about computers.
Ann McCall, TGWU education organiser for the North-west, said: "About 1,600 members go through our education programme each year. But hardly any are from the road haulage industry. It is very much a forgotten sector.
"They can't get access to learning because of their shifts or because they're away all the time. Training provision is inflexible right across the North-west."
To redress this, courses are provided which fit in with the drivers' schedules.
Some employers have responded favourably. Road haulier Wincanton Logistics has set up a learning centre with a visiting tutor for its drivers.
Len Pilling, who is general manager of the company's industrial and commercial division in the North, said he recognised that giving drivers more access to training benefits both company and employees.
"Certainly at Wincanton we think about training drivers in communication skills. They meet the customer probably more than I do. And there are more demands on lorry drivers these days. They are expected to be able to understand rules and regulations, present themselves to customers and solve problems."
But despite examples like this, the TGWU says that getting employers to respond to drivers' training and learning needs is an uphill struggle.
Of the 10 haulage companies whose employees have been involved in the project, only two have taken it on board.
"Cost is one objection," said Ann McCall.
"They're quite happy provided workers do it in their own time. Basically they want a bit more convincing."
The project has been welcomed by the Road Haulage Association, which has long campaigned on the issue of training for drivers. Ruth Pott, RHA's head of education and training, said: "It's an area that's greatly ignored by the industry generally."