Trade Unions have a crucial role in the effective delivery of the UK’s apprenticeship programme over the next few years. In PCS (the Public & Commercial Services Union, current General Secretary Mark Serwotka), we are ideally positioned because of our close relationship with the civil service workforce, to help the government achieve its target of 30,000 civil service apprentices by 2020.
Whilst a union’s traditional role, of representing and organising its members in the workplace, campaigning for improved pay and conditions, remains our prime role, learning and development has become a huge part of what the modern trade union does. We share with business and government the desire for a well-skilled workforce. Improved efficiency for the business and better career prospects for our members are two sides of the same virtuous coin.
Union Learning Projects
In acknowledgement of this shared wish, in 1998 the government and the TUC, via its union learning arm, together set up the Union Learning Fund. A non-Departmental Public Body, the ULF has worked with over 50 unions over the last 20 years to mount projects which help businesses and workers access a wide range of vocational and developmental learning opportunities. In 2002 ‘statutory’ recognition of the role of the Union Learning Rep (ULR) strengthened the union-employer partnership by allowing paid time off for representatives to work with management and workers to assist and promote learning and development.
PCS has now been running its successful English unionlearn project for 13 years with ULF funding, and we were pleased that our 2017-18 bid was commended by the ULF assessment panel for its strategic focus on the priority themes of civil service apprenticeships, professional development, key functional skills and tackling disadvantage.
2017 National Apprentices Week (6 to 10 March) gives us an ideal space to launch the Apprenticeship strand of our 2017-18 Projects (PCS has sister learning projects in partnership with the Scottish and Welsh TUC’s and their respective devolved administrations). Our Young Members Networks in each UK nation and in the English Regions will be working closely with unionlearn to talk to apprentices in the civil service about their rights to relevant (20% off-the-job) training, and to our ULRs about the Apprenticeship Levy, and the support they can give to members.
In January 2017 the civil service unions signed a landmark ‘Principles of Agreement’ with the Cabinet Office which will ensure a healthy partnership between the unions and government departments such as DWP and HMRC. The principles include engagement at Departmental level over workforce planning, trade union access locally to talk to apprentices at staff inductions, information sharing between employers and unions, engagement on selection of apprenticeship training providers, and Union Learning Rep access to apprentices to provide learning and development support.
PCS welcome this agreement as a hugely encouraging development for apprentices in the civil service. We want it to give our members, particularly young workers experiencing their first steps into work in the public services, a positive example of workforce engagement, one that will put apprentices in good stead for the rest of their career. And we look forward to working with senior managers in the civil service to support implementation of a genuinely progressive apprenticeship programme that will serve as a best practise example for other UK employers.