Organising workplace learning

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©Nick Saltmarsh

Most lifelong learning projects take a bit of time to get off the ground. They are a little different from run of the mill union/management business so people need to find out what’s involved, weigh up the costs and think about the commitments they are being asked to make.

Occasionally (and all too rarely) they go like a dream; everyone is enthusiastic, there is a real buzz and learning is up and running almost straight away. And then there are those that for whatever reason feel as if they will never succeed. That’s when Lifelong Learning Project Workers need determination, persistence and a bit of luck to make it come together. That’s what happened at the DHL Sainsburys site in Dartford.

I first came across DHL when Area Organiser Peter Chalklin asked me to attend a joint consultative meeting with shop stewards and DHL management; it was to talk about Usdaw Lifelong Learning and the advantages to the company. Peter had himself been the Division’s Lifelong Learning Project Officer for several years before moving over into the Area Organiser role. He was keen to get learning up and running on the site but had no success, either as the Project Worker or as an Area Organiser. Peter said:

The company will only recognise an equalities rep and not a fully trained ULR due to cost of paid time release.”

However, in the past couple of years several DHL sites across the country had successfully started lifelong learning projects so I mentioned that in the meeting and talked about the potential benefits. I was approached by one of our reps, Jiri Marek, after the meeting. He wanted to know more about the ULR role and was keen to be involved. I met with the Operations Manager Jason Pickering who was also at the meeting. He could see the potential benefits of learning and agreed for Jiri to have paid time off to attend the ULR training course.

This was progress but there were other issues as well. Dartford was a shared union site with Unite so I needed to get them on board. We work well in partnership with Unite in several sites but this time after several attempts to contact them to set up a pilot and joint venture I had no success. I then decided to set up our own three day campaign to cover all shifts as this is a 24/7 distribution centre.

Jiri was instrumental in organising these days and we also invited Kent County Council to attend as our provider in the area. We advertised that we would be onsite completing assessments for English as 85% of the workforce is not first language English employees’. We also discovered that staff were worried about Health & Safety and there was a high turnover of staff.

The promotions were a great success and 69 employees completed assessments over the 3 days. We set up ESOL courses and decided to link them to health and safety and are now 12 weeks into the ESOL course which is being delivered in line with the health and safety policy of the company. Jason said:

This was a tremendous success, people have improved their skills; are more productive and we have improved people’s safety. We should think about getting a learning centre on site."

Unfortunately, Jason was not able to take this forward as he recently moved from the business but we are still making progress. We now have two more Union Learning Reps awaiting their training, are negotiating with the new site manager to deliver digital skills courses and are discussing opening a learning centre. We have raised Usdaw’s profile and density at the site and we now have a ULR at the company JCC meetings to discuss all aspects of lifelong learning.

It took a long time to get the right people and the right formulae to make learning work at Dartford but now it’s up and running I think it will grow and grow. Sometimes all you need is patience, persistence and a helping hand from Lady Luck.


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Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller is a Lifelong Learning Project Worker with Usdaw covering the unions Southern Division.

In this blog Lawrence talks about how the union went about organising workplace learning in a large distribution site in Dartford, Kent.