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Turning workers into learners is next union fight

Teacher and lecturer unions are in the news at the moment as they vote for strike action to protect their pensions. But, away from the headlines, there is also a quiet revolution going on.

One-tenth of all union activity is now concerned with learning, and this should rise to 20 per cent within a decade. As a recent survey by adult learning organisation Niace showed, 28 per cent of adult learners - the highest proportion - are learning at work. The majority of the 2020 workforce has already left formal education. As the baby-boomers retire, there will be a large skills gap to fill and too few young people to fill it.

In the past 12 years, unionlearn has trained more than 28,000 union learning representatives (ULRs), who act as advocates for learning in the workplace. They negotiate learning agreements with employers so staff have time for training and learning. ULRs work with local colleges to ensure they are able to advise their colleagues on the opportunities available. In 200910, almost 250,000 working people were involved in a learning opportunity delivered through their union.

At our annual conference on Monday, we will be launching Higher Learning at Work, a website that offers advice and information to reps, trainers, HR personnel and learners on getting access to higher-level studies. With the loss of funding to the Foundation Degree Forward, Aim Higher and the Lifelong Learning Network, unionlearn is one of the few organisations left giving advice on HE to adults.

Ministers and Ofsted inspectors acknowledge that unionlearn's greatest strength is that it reaches those parts of the workforce that others fail to reach. It is the young and those with the best qualifications who get the lion's share of workplace training, but through our partnerships with employers, we are giving older and less- qualified workers, many of whom have had a bad experience at school, another chance to get back into learning and upgrade their skills for the jobs of the future.

A report published this month by London Metropolitan University's Working Lives Research Institute shows that the unionlearn model of learning - in colleges, workplace centres or via online courses - is popular because it suits people's other commitments. It also shows that using peers, such as ULRs, is very successful at reaching those less confident at learning.

Our agenda is also changing people's attitudes to unions. Attracted by new learning offers, more people are joining up. Compared with other union reps, ULRs are more likely to be young, female or from diverse backgrounds, and 88 per cent of employers who have been involved in our projects say they want to continue with them. Many report that they help create a new constructive relationship with the union and employees.

At our conference we will hear from UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox, who will encourage delegates to get involved in our joint campaign to help the millions who do not use the internet to enjoy its benefits. We will have a video message from Nathan Cleverly, the WBO light-heavyweight boxing champion and maths graduate, who is supporting Maths4Us, our initiative to improve adult numeracy. Charlie Mayfield, chair of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and head of John Lewis, will speak on how unions and employers can work together to improve skills in a competitive world economy.

Unions have always been involved in learning. Blazoned proudly on the first trade union banners were the words "Educate, Agitate and Organise". Union learning will become more important than ever before.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC's learning and skills organisation.

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