Lifelong Learning - A Union Perspective
This paper is being presented for discussion at a time when the Irish economy is booming. Unemployment is at an all time low, labour shortages are being widely discussed and Irish living standards are on a par with the highest in Europe. We are conscious that the paradox of long term unemployment existing alongside labour shortages is not peculiar to Ireland; that certain groups are more likely to be unemployed than others; and that in leaner times, it will be those employees with the least education and training that will be most vulnerable to unemployment. Lifelong learning must be seen in a wider perspective, including everything from job related training to learning activities which enable individuals to participate in the civic, social and cultural life of society.
The employability of all of our workforce is our priority. Training and education have each played a key role in Ireland's economic regeneration. What is different now is the recognition that education and training have to be life long. We are used to Initial Vocational Training and Continuous Vocational Training. Life long Learning takes us one step further in recognising that the pace of change in our knowledge-based society is so fast that only a response that embeds continuous and ongoing upskilling and reskilling into our work culture will give us the human capital needed to ensure our employability in the future. Our priority must be the continuous upgrading of skills.
The phrase Lifelong Learning has come into vogue in the past decade. Originating at OECD level, it put the emphasis on outputs (learning) rather than the inputs (education, training, and self-study). It puts an emphasis on the continuing acquisition of knowledge. The recent White Paper, Learning for Life shows how these ideas might be transposed into a national context.
Many factors are driving the increased momentum towards workplace learning. One is the recognised shortage of key skills. Another is the increasing complexity of industry with the demand this creates for a more highly skilled workforce. There is also the consistent pressure to improve efficiency and to upgrade quality to meet highest international standards. In the future, training for those in employment will cease to be seen as a luxury and will come to be regarded as a necessity. Remaining as we are is not an option.
Where education and training in the workplace was undertaken, it tended to be something that, if collectively based, was 'done to' employees. In most cases this training lacked certification. This lack of certification made it difficult to place a value on the training, particularly when a worker was moving between industries. The use of training grants in IDA companies as a form of aid to industry did not help the perception of collective training as an activity to be valued in itself. Indeed, in certain cases this practice tended to portray collective training as a vehicle for funding, rather than for learning.
The quickening pace of technological change means that many skills are becoming obsolete and the owners of the skills redundant. This is particularly so in the case of older employees. The traditional union approach was to maximise the severance payment to such employees. Unions are increasingly seeking to provide their members with choices where interventions such as training courses will prolong the working life of the individual, either in their current enterprise or elsewhere.
Unions are also taking an increasingly active interest in the education and skills level of their members. They have become involved with work-based learning, and in some cases, skill-based pay. This has facilitated a move away from an individual and towards a collective approach to work based learning. Congress and affiliated unions have been especially successful in using the Human Resource programmes of the EU to develop a number of interventions in this area. These have included a training course for union activists in the area of vocational training, an equality programme in the retail sector, the development of a network of equality reps, and the only Irish based course in total productive maintenance. As a result of these and other initiatives, unions have become a major player in the area of work-based learning.
The main driving forces behind Lifelong Learning
- Influence of EU policies and mainstreaming effects of EU programmes
EU policies have been developed since the early nineties in order to ensure that Europe was competitive with the US and Japan. They were given expression in the Commission Green Paper "Towards a Europe of Knowledge". In order to give concrete support to these policies, the Commission supported a range of programmes across the EU, such as Leonardo da Vinci and ADAPT.. Additionally, since the Essen Summit, each Member State is obliged to report progress to the Commission on their progress under the Employment Guidelines. One of these guidelines is Lifelong Learning.
- Globalisation and industrial restructuring:
The types of jobs that are now concentrating in Ireland tend to be higher up the value chain, and to require a higher skills input. Even in traditional industries such as food processing, there is a drive towards higher value products and verifiable hygiene standards. These require a more skilled workforce. It is now coming to be accepted that these types of jobs require constant upskilling in order to keep pace with the rapid pace of change, and that lifelong learning is the methodology by which this upskilling should be achieved.
- Focus on Partnership as a problem-solving tool:
The eighties saw a rapid increase in long term unemployment. A number of initiatives were developed to tackle this problem, among them the Area Partnership companies. As work progressed in this area, it became increasingly apparent that tomorrow's long term unemployed were in today's workforce, and that work-based learning will be a key strategy in combating unemployment over time. The lessons of the partnership process as identified by the OECD were that resources could be mobilised on a national basis to tackle a commonly identified problem. Training related initiatives were frequently a part of in-company partnership initiatives undertaken under Chapter 9 of Partnership 2000. An important example of this is the New Forms of Work Organisation initiative, which was jointly developed by ICTU, IBEC, and the IPC. Another is the Training Awareness Campaign, an ADAPT project jointly promoted by IBEC and ICTU.
- Union led EU projects as promoters of change
Under the ADAPT initiative, SIPTU promoted a proposal entitled Strategic Development Initiative. The objective of this project was to apply concepts of new forms of work organisation to the way in which unions carry out their work. Project teams were established in selected branches consisting of full-time officials, clerical support staff and lay activists. The results achieved under the SDI have indicated a new and more efficient way for SIPTU to carry out its activities. Networks of lay representatives have been trained in areas such as work-study, health and safety, equality and education, thus utilising the diverse talents available at various levels in the union.
Both Congress and SIPTU developed NCEA certification for their range of courses. Using ADAPT funding, a partnership was formed with UCD which developed a degree level version of these courses. In this way, an internal non-certified course was developed into an externally certified degree level course.
The majority of employees in the retail industry are women. Access to promotional opportunities is a key issue for MANDATE, who successfully applied to the Leonardo De Vinci programme to develop a course aimed at combating this 'glass ceiling' effect in the retail sector. This course was developed and piloted with retail unions in Scandinavian countries.
European training practice
Many of our fellow Member States in Europe have already developed systems to ensure that training and lifelong learning become the norm.
There is a compulsory levy of 1.5% payable by all employers. This may be drawn down by the employers to provide training in accordance with a format agreed by regional or industry based bodies and approved by the Enterprise Committee (Comite d'Enterprise). A broadly similar situation exists in Spain, although here both employers and unions own their own training companies who provide workplace training.
A system of paid educational leave exists, with all employees statutorily entitled to take a certain amount of time off to pursue a recognised course of study. In the region of 5% of workers avail of this option at any one time.
The right to training leave (which is statutory) is separate from the payment for that leave (which is negotiated).
A version of Paid Educational Leave has been in existence in Denmark since 1990. Entitled "Job Rotation"; it allows employees to take up to six months in study leave. Unemployed person fills the consequential vacancy caused by this person taking leave on a temporary contract (rather in the way a maternity leave vacancy would be filled). This scheme has the effect of increasing training within enterprises, while giving employers a broader pool of potential workers. Similarly, it allows unemployed people to be offered jobs in a firm as opposed to places on a scheme.
The Government has initiated learning accounts which workers can use to pay for training throughout their working life. Both the Government and the individual make a contribution. Most of the ADAPT funding allocated to the UK have been earmarked for a 'University of Industry' initiative.
Where Do Irish Workplaces Stand?
Reliable statistics on the level of resources committed to education or training in the workforce are difficult to come by. The 1997 White Paper on Human Resource Development states that 'The incidence of training activity in Ireland falls well short of best international practice. The national training effort needs to be considerably developed if Ireland is to reach even the average level of training performance in the EU. Attaining the level of best international practice, where training expenditure ranges between 3% and 5% will require a significant expansion of training activities."
This vision of a high skills, high wage economy was first articulated by Congress in the early nineties. At the time, it was seen by many commentators as being idealistic. It has now become mainstream economic policy.
The scale of the problem as outlined in the White Paper gives unions an opportunity to place themselves at the centre of the debate about work-based learning. Any solution, which is based solely on a dialogue between government and employers, and without trade union participation, is doomed to failure, given the realities of the labour market. Quite simply, what is rational behaviour for an individual employer is not appropriate for the labour market as a whole.
A recent study summarises the position as follows:
'Economic analysis suggests that employers will not be prepared to finance the provision of general training, but will instead seek to poach rather than to train the skilled workers that they require'
[Ireland at Work, Paul Tansey 1998]
This trend is confirmed in work undertaken by the ESRI in 1998 [Barrett and O Connell survey]. This concludes that it is a general approach to training which produces the highest financial returns, rather than the firm- specific training that is so predominant in Irish industry. By 'general training', we mean adopting a holistic approach, including changing attitudes and broadening minds in order to ensure that people are open to the concept of lifelong learning. A survey undertaken by FAS in 1998 shows that the bulk of continuing training undertaken in Irish industry is undertaken in-company. This type of training tends not to carry external certification, and is an example of the 'specific training' referred to in the quote above.
The ERSI study goes on to say, 'We found, contrary to what was expected, that although general training has a statistically positive effect on productivity growth, no such effect is observable for specific training'. In summary, the study found that the holistic approach of lifelong learning is what yields tangible positive economic results; the provision of specific training initiatives, on the other hand, showed no discernible impact on the growth of productivity. A FAS survey conducted in 1998 found that the average cost per participant in Ireland was, at half the EU average, the lowest in the EU.
Much of this again comes down to the fact that training for specific goals is actually more of a fire-fighting exercise. The pace of change today is such that often once you train for a specific goal and achieve that goal, the goal is already obsolete. Instead, instituting a programme of general, holistic, lifelong learning empowers employees to innovate and adapt, and in effect to get ahead of the curve. And it is this ability which allows such training to impact on the growth of productivity.
The skills level of the Irish workforce today is largely the product of the output the Irish education system. In the 16-35 age cohort our statistics are in line with the European average, with a high proportion of the age cohort completing secondary school, and a significant proportion of school leavers going on to gain a third level qualification. In the 15-65-age cohort, however, the proportion of workers who have completed secondary education is amongst the lowest in Northern Europe. Those lucky enough to have entered the secondary system after 1968 had access to a much wider range of educational opportunities. Those who were not as fortunate are obviously at significant risk. Tackling this problem poses challenges for schools and colleges, with a growing number of adults seeking their services.
Large numbers of workers in today's labour force have either low or no qualifications. These are the people who are in greatest danger of unemployment in any future downturn. Tomorrow's long term unemployed may well include some of today's youngsters who are being tempted into low skilled jobs at the expense of completing their education. This contrasting experience between generations raises fundamental issues of equity, which have to be addressed. In this context, it should be noted that only 5% of entrants to third level education in Ireland are mature students whereas the average in OECD countries is 20%.
A key priority must be to provide the facility for second chance education for those workers. Existing educational institutions should be encouraged to transform themselves into establishments of lifelong learning, and this process resourced accordingly.
The Union Contribution
Unions as Providers
In recent times, a growing number of unions have begun to provide career development training for their members, paid for in whole or in part by employers.
Following on the success of a skill development programme for maintenance craftspersons, Congress came together with AEEU and TEEU to form a company entitled Education and Training Services. This company provides technical training for union members and has established a reputation as a leader in its field. The company also provides training in such areas as safety and partnership development and employs twelve people.
In a broadly similar development, the Teacher unions have developed a role for themselves as major providers in the provision of in service training for union members. The need for such training arises from the demands of a changing curriculum. While the precise nature of the training varies between the primary and second level sectors, a significant amount of material is delivered by the unions who are now established as major providers.
In recent years unions have begun to take a more active role in the provision of work-based learning for their members. Indeed the trade union movement is a natural promoter of work-based learning. Government has limited knowledge about the actual needs of employees. Companies act according to their own business model, and are therefore only concerned with what benefits themselves, rather than their sector or the country as whole. Inter company co-operation is often restricted by competition issues.
Unions however, are concerned with members, who are employed throughout the country and in all sectors. Thus, it is natural that unions should be concerned about promoting work-based learning which addresses the needs of all their members in any given sector to the benefit of the sector as a whole. Unions are close to the ground and can therefore ascertain members' training needs and can play an active role in meeting these needs.
Learning at work and reward systems
The link between learning at work and wages is a complex one, operating in widely different ways. Most frequently the link between learning and wages in indirect, being achieved through wider access to promotion or ability to undertake a broader range of skills. However, in more recent times the links have been made explicit in a number of cases. A sample of these is set out below.
In UNIFY Letterkenny fitters and electricians received three phased payments as part of a restructuring package. A key component of this package was an obligation upon each of the workers concerned to attend specific technical course, and to pass the tests set at the end of each course.
In ABBOT Cootehill SIPTU negotiated an agreement for Laboratory Technicians who did not have NCEA certification, which is compulsory for new entrants into the grade. They receive a £5 per week increase when they enrolled in an upgrading course, £5 when the course was half completed and £5 per week when the course was completed. Dropping out of the course would cause the entire £15 increase to be lost.
The need for union involvement in the area of learning is demonstrated at a number of levels. As we move into a more knowledge-based society, the acquisition and updating of skills become a key factor in ensuring a person's employability across their lifetime.
Research currently being undertaken for CEDEFOP has reached the following preliminary findings:
- There is a significant relationship between training and wages, the effect being particularly strong for women ( although this effect may be diluted in Ireland due to inadequate childcare)
- 'General' training (i.e. the holistic approach, or lifelong learning approach) has a positive effect on productivity
- Off the job training has a higher value to present and prospective employers than on the job training
Lifelong learning stands at the intersection of wages, productivity and employability. These concepts are core activities for unions, and require their active involvement. In the absence of a strong union involvement, there is no way of ensuring that those most in need of learning opportunities actually receive the assistance, which they require. An active union involvement will help to ensure both the relevance and the transferability of the material on offer. An active union involvement should also ensure equality of access, and should in particular, exercise a pressure on providers and government alike to support the provision of high quality childcare services. This involvement will bring benefits not only to unions and their members, but also to the economy as a whole, because the involvement of unions in the equation will tend to exercise an upward pressure on both the quantity and quality of training. It will also act as a corrective on the natural propensity of employers not to train enough or to specify an insufficiently broad syllabus.
Who pays and for what?
As the Lifelong Learning debate develops, the first issue of significance to arise is who is to pay for this. This debate will become all the more significant in the light of the changing pattern of EU structural funds in the next decade. Increasingly, developments in this area will have to be funded by the Irish exchequer. CEDEFOP remarks that There is a general consensus that skills required of the workforce have increased over time and are continuing to increase, that those with low levels of education experience significantly more difficulty than others in finding employment, and that the demands on education training systems are likely to go on growing in future years. In reality, governments have little choice but to try to keep pace with these demands from a point of view of economic competitiveness and individual equity." [The Age of Learning - Cedefop 2000]
Perhaps the best way to approach this issue is to ask who benefits from an increase in work-based learning.
Individuals contribute by devoting time and effort and often contribute substantially to the learning provider by way of fees. They benefit by increased career choices, increased employability and potentially increased earnings.
Employers benefit by the increased flexibility that derives from a more highly educated workforce, and by an increased pool of skilled labour. Recent ESRI research shows that general skills rather than job specific skills bring a higher return by way of productivity. Employers contribute in a number of ways such as reimbursement of fees, study leave, etc.
The State benefits by virtue of the general increase in skill levels of the labour force. The State receives significant fee income either from learners .As education and training is reflected in higher earnings, the state benefits through the tax system.
The White Paper on Human Resource Development sets out ambitious targets to move Irish levels of training to near European best practice. This will only be met if there are major changes in the behaviour of the various players. This would mean the state prioritising work-based learning. For employers and unions, it would mean building a new consensus on the issue of leave for educational purposes and the payment that attaches to it.
Ireland's economic success cannot be taken for granted. Key to maintaining this economic success will be increasing the skills of those in work. This presents challenges to all the parties, not least because it means delivering learning to new groups in new ways. For the Irish economy of today, lifelong learning and workplace learning are not luxuries they are necessities.
- Fox Roger Training of the Employed in Ireland: Trends and Comparisons. FAS 1998
- Tansey Paul Ireland at Work Oak Tree Press 1998 Alan Barrett and Philip O Connell
- Measuring the Returns to in Company Training in Irish Enterprises ESRI 1998
- Vocational education and training in Finland CEDEFOP 1997
- Vocational education and training in Sweden CEDEFOP 1999
- Vocational education and training in Norway CEDEFOP 1999
- An age of Learning- vocational training policy at European level CEDEFOP 2000