Politicians are eagerly watching a trailblazing training initiative as they refine their skills policies. Emma Burstall reports
Six months ago Robin Huckle knew almost nothing about computers and felt left out when his wife and children talked about them. Now, he speaks the language and describes himself as a computer nerd.
The transformation began when Mr Huckle, 40, a clerk at Ford, Dagenham, Essex, enrolled last August on a pilot, core-skills programme for press shop workers run by the company's basic skills at work unit called Off line.
The scheme is the company's answer to skills shortages and gives every employee a chance to improve themselves, boosting promotion prospects and improving their chances of new jobs if redundancy looms.
All political eyes are turned on the Ford scheme. It is a textbook example of the Conservative's appeal for employers to take the initiative. Labour is also looking to Ford as an escape from the political hot potato of imposing a compulsory training levy on employers.
The scheme could be adapted to fit Labour's proposal for "individual learning accounts" - a bank in which the Government, employers and employees invest. Tony Blair's office is looking again at its training proposals following a backlash from the Left and the unions over plans to drop the levy policy.
His advisers, visiting Ford, will find a success story in Robin Huckle. He took a national vocational qualification level 1 in information technology and was delighted to be among the first six employees to receive an award in a presentation ceremony last month.
His boss Tom Newman, 44, a senior foreman who did the same course, believes he is more likely to keep his job as a result.
"My work has changed over the years and I have to be more involved in reports and presentations. I used to be embarrassed by my lack of computer numeracy. Now I'm pretty fluent," he said.
According to Sue Southwood, co-ordinator of Off line, core skills are becoming increasingly important as employers demand more and more of their workers.
Product quality, for example, is the responsibility of every worker now, she explains, and employees need reasonable maths to be able to measure it.
"It's no longer possible to do the same job for 10 years. You have to be adaptable. The beauty about core skills is that they are not just aimed at people who didn't get on at school, they are for everybody from operators to managers."
Here, she strikes at the heart of the nation's dilemma over the need for rapid retraining to meet changing industry needs without leaving individuals behind. "You can start at level 1 and go right up to level 5," she says.
She was amazed by the response when Off line first advertised the pilot programme, 150 workers volunteered to take part and 112 chose information technology. Other areas covered by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) units include communication, application of number, working with others, problem solving, and improving own learningperformance.
It was originally thought that employees would split their studies 50-50 between work and home-time. However, many were prepared to put in far more off-duty hours than expected. It gives Labour proof that individuals will invest time and money if employers take the initiative.
Robin Huckle, for instance, estimates that he spends between two and three hours before and after work each day and most of his day off brushing up on computer skills. He is hoping now to take IT levels 2 and 3 as well as basic maths and English. And he is saving up for a home computer.
"I didn't realise computers could be this good. The time just flies by, " he says.
Ford is now hoping to expand its core-skills programme beyond the press shop to the whole Dagenham plant.
Jenny Boreham, the RSA's south-east regional manager, said: "Thousands of people are now doing core skills. They are among the most saleable qualifications in industry. Given the shift patterns at Ford, it's a huge achievement for so many men to have completed the units. Most of it has been done in their own time."