Helping civil servants move on at work

PCS’s Union Learning Fund project enables civil servants and other public sector staff to access a wide range of learning opportunities, whether they are new starters on an apprenticeship or older people keen to develop their transferable skills.

PCS Supporting Learners

Civil servants, other public sector workers and employees on outsourced government contracts are developing the skills to succeed in their working lives through the three-year Union Learning Fund (ULF) project delivered by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

The project is able to support members and potential members wherever they are in their careers, whether they are new entrants enrolled on an apprenticeship programme or older workers looking to review and develop their transferable skills as a result of the one of the many restructuring programmes across the civil service.

In HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), for example, the massive office closure and regional centre relocation programme is creating a range of skills needs for staff, many of them in their 40s and 50s, says PCS ULF Project Manager Kim Hendry.

Kim said:

Unionlearn’s Mid-Life Development Review and Value My Skills workshops are very popular across HMRC at the moment, when people are coming to a juncture in their careers because their offices are closing.”

Helping workers become more fluent in digital skills is also increasingly important, with HMRC keen to encourage ‘smarter’ working (from home as well as from the office) by issuing staff with Surface Pro tablets – but not always providing the training that would help them use the equipment most effectively.

That was partly why Leeds ULR Claire Thorpe stepped in to source suitable IT courses to help her co-workers get the most out of the new tablets – for which she won unionlearn’s ULR award for digital skills at this year’s annual conference. The project also supports English and maths learning, Kim says.

Kim explained:

We offer a range of English, maths and digital courses and most regions have run Level 2 functional skills courses over the year and a half I have been managing the project.”

These courses take place in both PCS regional offices and individual workplaces.

One of the many organising benefits of learning is that courses often engage members who do not take part in more traditional PCS activity, Kim points out.

Kim said:

On our courses, we have a really good turnout from black workers, women workers, older workers and disabled workers, so we are meeting a need for members who are facing discrimination in work and in wider society.”

With departmental restructuring, job cuts, the lack of recruitment and the public sector pay freeze all contributing to excessive workloads and stress in many PCS workplaces in recent years, the ULF project has delivered a range of health and wellbeing workshops to help staff deal with the challenges.

As apprentice recruitment increases throughout the civil service and across government agencies, PCS is keen to ensure that apprentices get the support they need to pass their end-point assessments and are given the minimum 20 per cent off-the-job training they are entitled to.

However, the ULF project can only support apprentices that the union knows about, which remains a sticking point with most departments, despite the provisions of the Agreed Principles on civil service apprenticeships signed by PCS and the other unions in the National Trade Union Committee (NTUC) and the Cabinet Office in January 2017.

Kim said:

We have the ridiculous situation where the Department for Education (DfE) funds us to support apprentices but their colleagues in other departments refuse to divulge details about the location of their apprentices to PCS negotiators and local ULRs.”

We continue to press at Cabinet Office and departmental level for this crucial information. In the meantime, we still support apprentices because we don’t rely on the employer to find them – and where we do support them, there’s a lot of good work going on.”

Apprentice recruitment into PCS is the best guarantee of high-quality training, Kim says.

Kim explained:

Recruiting, organising and representing apprentices and their issues at workplace level, departmental level and Cabinet Office national level are really important.”

One of the key components of the PCS approach to learning is that the union is interested in helping members develop more than the skills they may need in the workplace at any one time.

Kim said:

We’re interested in the whole worker, in all the different skills and knowledge and talent and creativity they’ve got, which they may not be able to deploy in the particular job they’re doing.”

And the members feel the same way, as evidenced by the popularity of the creative writing workshops that have recently been delivered in the union’s London and the South East region by Quick Reads author Vaseem Khan (who also spoke at the 2018 unionlearn annual conference).

Kim is keen to build on this work by running creative writing competitions later in the lifetime of the project, holding more workshops to help people develop the skills they would need to take part. As someone with 16 years’ experience as an industrial officer with PCS before she took on the ULF role 18 months ago, Kim is keen to continue to move learning ever further into the union mainstream.

Kim is proud of the union’s ULRs, who are at the core of how learning is delivered in the union.

Kim said:

Learning is a core trade union issue alongside pay, conditions and other key issues.”

For the past three years, our ULRs have been recognised at unionlearn’s annual conference for exceptional learning achievements in their workplaces,” she points out.

She also pays tribute to the PCS project workers who support and develop the skills and confidence of those ULRs while also building relationships with their colleagues throughout the union.

Kim said:

We have a brilliant team of regional project workers, who are working increasingly closely with colleagues in PCS regional offices to integrate learning and organising and show all the ways that learning activity can build the union and support PCS members and other staff.”

We are also upskilling our project workers so they can deliver short informal learning sessions, which is giving us a greater range of learning activity as well as making us more self-sufficient.”

This story first appeared in the Autumn 2019 Learning Rep.