A campaign of job swaps and shadowing has culminated in special events for Adult Learners' Week Justina Hart reports
A man in Leatherhead yesterday put on a special suit which gave him the power to withstand up to 400,000 volts.
This potentially shocking experience turned out to be part of Adult Learners' Week. The brave Surrey volunteer was a manager working for National Grid, the international electricity supplier.
He was on a Learning at Work Day and his Faraday suit was designed as a form of job swap; a way of "getting under the skin" of employees who climb electricity pylons.
Job swappers at the Department for Education and Employment chose less highly charged activities: Nick Stuart at the directorate tried the reception desk, while Michael Bichard, the DFEE's top civil servant, arranged to switch with Microsoft chairman David Svendsen.
The day was organised by the Campaign for Learning, a national charity launched in 1997 and backed by the Government, business and the voluntary sector. It is supported by major business organisations in the UK, including the CBI.
Until 1998, Learning at Work had been built into Adult Learners' Week and not accorded special status. This year, said its marketing director Michelle Wake, campaign organisers decided on "grass-roots activity".
A Mori poll commissioned by the campaign revealed that the workplace is the most popular learning environment after the home. It also found that 77 per cent of employees would prefer to work for companies which support training rather give them a pay rise.
Research has also shown that learning at work tends to involve managers and full-time employees rather than temporary or part-time workers and support staff. A key aim is to integrate effective learning into everyday working practices. "We want to create learning environments for everyone," said Michelle Wake.
The campaign targets senior managers as well as support staff and employees with few qualifications: "It's important for managers to 'walk the talk'. Job swaps put managers in vulnerable positions which get them to admit that everyone is in the same boat; we've all got to learn."
The campaign office distributed information to umbrella organisations and to the UK's top 3,000 companies. Many of the 800 or so organisations expected to run activities were either education providers, such as training and enterprise councils and universities, or linked organisations such as councils, libraries and chambers of commerce. However, household names, such as British Aerospace, and smaller enterprises, also joined in.
"National Grid planned doing the most extraordinary things," said campaign chief executive Bill Lucas, "but the DFEE was close on their heels."
The most popular activities around were job swaps and work shadowing, said Mr Lucas. Companies put up posters and disseminated information via their intranets. There have also been open days offering taster courses, such as IT for the terrified.
National Grid launched the day with an interactive workplace learning event in Coventry. Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce launched an individual learning account project and a helpline. Gas supplier Centrica organised business learning centres and a quiz.
Companies which do not have their own learning centres collaborated with local training providers, including colleges.
Campaigners admit there is still a long way to go to raise awareness of learning at work in UK companies: "There are pockets of excellence, but the general picture is patchy," said Mr Lucas. "Investors in People is obviously an important standard, and beyond that, there is a growing interest in practical activities such as coaching and mentoring."
Tullis Russell, a traditional paper-making company in Fife, typifies some of the problems faced by smaller, traditional organisations.
Employee development manager Margaret Asquith had planned a learning at work fair to involve seven local training providers, including Glenrothes, Elmwood and Lauder Colleges. But they realised the fair was too ambitious.
"Our management have a substantial training budget but in the past we've thrown money in a firefighting, reactive way at training, rather than planning logically. We've got a long, hard challenge ahead of us."
Campaign for Learning, contact Michelle Wake on 0171 930 1111