But what happens when the cold winds blow?
Part-time and temporary work is growing rapidly in Britain as well as the United States, and effective strategies to include part-time and temporary workers in education and training are essential if we are to create the learning society to which all the major political parties are now signed up - in principle at least.
It is no small challenge, with only 70 per cent of employers believing they have responsibility for part-time workers' training, and just 40 per cent for temporary workers. The issue is gendered since 85 per cent of part-time and temporary workers are women. It is one reason why the NIACEGallup poll showed this month that women continue to get dramatically fewer learning opportunities than men. Yet as the debates during Adult Learners' Week demonstrated, no one seems to have very clear ideas about what to do about it.
Dominic Cadbury, the chair of the education and training committee of the CBI, made a fair distinction in suggesting that those temporary workers with high levels of skills which are in demand in the market have little to worry about. First, the work they are contracted to do usually involves on-the-job skills updating. Second, they can negotiate rates of pay which take into account the costs of continuing professional education, and third, employers often offer regular consultants free access to company in-service training, to ensure that they can secure appropriately skilled support when they need it.
This virtuous circle is in marked contrast to the picture facing people bouncing in and out of the bottom of the labour market. Few contract cleaning staff or temporary secretaries, few casual bar staff or hop-pickers get in- service training as part of their employment packages.
All too often the same is true of part-time tutors in adult education services, in local authorities and in further education. As John Monks pointed out at the TUC conference for the European Year of Lifelong Learning, workers are more likely to get education and training opportunities at work where trade unions are recognised, yet part-time workers, and particularly temporary workers are much less likely to be organised in trade unions.
The TUC has few words of comfort for such workers, except to encourage people to invest in their own learning, and it is hardly a recipe for social justice to expect the economically marginal to meet the full costs of their own education and training, whilst those remaining in full-time work can expect increasingly to have learning accounts topped up by employers as well as the state.
The CBI's consultation paper on the Flexible Workforce raised the issues starkly, but was short on conclusions. The Labour party's papers on Lifelong Learning, and on skills fail to address the issue while abandoning any commitment to a training levy. Yet the scale of the failure to provide for the learning needs of part-time staff is a major argument against the voluntary principle in training by employers. Of course, the problem here, like that involved in jettisoning the 16-hour rule is cost. Creating the learning society does not come cheap.
Wherever you look you can see the shared vision of a learning society weakened by cost constraints. Local authorities have cut adult education through the 1990s, in response to very tight financial settlements. Discretionary grants are in many places all but a thing of the past. And now in higher education a tough financial settlement is being visited on adult learning opportunities. The possible withdrawal of the University of Greenwich from the local access consortium GAP, reported in FE Focus, was a sign. The decision of the Open University to withdraw from community education as part of its cost-cutting measures, and a proposal at the University of Northumbria to cut funding of its Unilink programme are further indicators that the university sector's enthusiasm for lifelong learning may be skin deep.
But the most worrying news of all is that the moves to create a single quality assurance body for higher education are expected to squeeze out the Access course recognition function of the Higher Education Quality Council. This work has been critical to the acceptance of the Access course route to university entrance, yet it is rumoured that even such long-standing friends of adult learners as Lesley Wagner of Leeds Metropolitan University and Peter Toyne of Liverpool John Moores want it to be jettisoned.
There is a chance that a coalition of agencies around the national open college network could pick up the task, but it could be essential that the Pounds 100,000 budget given to HEQC to undertake the work be transferred, and that a transitional period be established, in which a new body could reassure universities that on rigour and consistency it was business as usual.
The extraordinary growth of Access courses in the l990s convinced me that faced with losing a department or an institution, on the one hand, or the recruitment of adults on the other, most rational institutional managers found it easy to develop an enthusiasm for adult learning.
The current trend convinces me again that unless the needs of adults are recognised in the rule book and the funding mechanisms, they risk losing all their recent gains when cold winds blow.