2015 05 – Workplace Learning

ICTU Union Learning Fund Conference, Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast, 25th March 2015


Speech by Mark Langhammer 

“Workplace Learning at a time of austerity”


Introducing Minister Stephen Farry

I’d like to welcome Minister Farry to the event today. The ICTU NI Committee have reasonable, but partial engagement with the NI Executive. Minister Farry has engaged generously with the ICTU, has been supportive of the Union learning agenda, and ‘gets’ what we do – we thank you for that.  You are very welcome here today.

This conference is an important part of the trade union calendar and the theme today is “Workplace Learning at a time of austerity”.

We don’t need telling, do we? Just this morning, Belfast Metropolitan College announced over 100 job losses, a direct consequence of a 6.4% cut in the Further Education budget. We have already seen cuts to the Educational Maintenance Allowance and with these latest cuts to FE we may see the loss of funded Adult and Community education classes, a shrinkage of “second chance” learning outlets and a radical loss of School / FE collaboration on Entitlement Framework courses.

The Department of Employment and Learning will soon largely merge with the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment to form a Department for the Economy. Ministers Farry and Foster both talk-up the skills agenda, economic development and the economy.  Rightly so!  If the Ministers can’t cheerlead, who can? We hear about the “knowledge economy” and “high tec skills” – even more recently we hear about the Northern Ireland “Golf Economy”. And yes, we have pockets of highly skilled, high performance, economic development.

But the reality, for most of us, across the piece, is different. Only 15-18% of our jobs can reasonably be described as genuine graduate jobs. Less than 12% of our workplaces are high performance workplaces – characterised by high levels of autonomy, work discretion, high productivity, good industrial relations and staff welfare practice. We have too few manufacturing jobs. And swathes of our economy are locked into a low paid, low skills equilibrium. There are too many insecure jobs, many are under-employed in poorly regulated trades with few opportunities to advance. Contracts are often short term, casual, fixed term or even “zero hours”, restricting the opportunity to plan for the future. There are too many “McJobs”, especially in retail, tourism, hospitality, catering, care and in service generally.

This creates a problem in education and for learning.  Why?  Two points.

First, because “Good Work” is a major driver, a major motivating factor in learning. Nothing motivates like the prospect of an interesting job, with decent rewards, and avenues to progress your career within a well managed and regulated trade or sector.

A few years ago I chaired a working group set up by Dawn Purvis, MLA,  to consider the educational underachievement within the Protestant working class. What struck me wasn’t the academic research or the good educational practice – of which there was plenty. What struck me was the absence of role models. In many areas and estates the successful people, the people wearing the right gear, the people driving the 4 x 4s weren’t working in catering or health care or hospitality or services.  They weren’t working in anything, except maybe “working moves”. You know what I’m talking about.  These were the role models. What I’m saying is that young people aren’t stupid. They’ll work towards a goal if it’s viable.  But there just isn’t enough good work to provide sufficient incentives. And the absence of ‘good work’ can – in this society – have a corrosive effect on the choices that young people make.

Second, the “deal” at the heart of the education process has broken down. For my generation, the deal was (and I can hear my Mum in my ear) – to work hard, to get your head in your books, to study, to commit and achieve and the rewards will come – in the labour market and in life. That deal is close to dead! Gone! Apart from a tiny elite of graduates who can still get rewards, the new equilibrium for most graduates is high skills with low pay.

That’s why the case for maintaining Higher Education places at current levels is a weak case. Yes, we need stable higher education institutions. We need a viable research and development capacity. But should we be ‘warehousing’ 45-50% of our young people in graduate routes when the graduate jobs aren’t there?  Or when our real gap is at level 3, for intermediate, technical and associate professional skills. The case for Further Education, workplace learning and apprenticeship is surely more pressing.

And we don’t just need better skills – we need an active, interventionist Industrial strategy such as that outlined at the GMB conference a year or so ago.


We at ICTU are very proud of the Union Learning Fund and its achievements. Along with Avril Hall-Callaghan of UTU, who is here today, I sit on the ICTU Union Learning Fund (ULF) committee. The breadth of work undertaken is astonishing. There are 11 unions involved, across a range of industrial sectors and the public service. Nearly 6000 union learners have achieved their goals in the 2011-14 round. We are active in dozens of companies that you will all easily recognize. I can’t name them all – but we’re in firms such as Wrightbus, Bombardier, Moypark, Coca-Cola, Allied Bakeries, Kingspan, Ryobi and many, many others.  There are ULF projects across the public sector, in every government department, in local government and in health.  You will hear from many of these later today. Two in particular struck me.

The ULF project in the NI Environmental Agency saw union members undertake a Level 3 course in Heritage Skills – old, traditional skills such as Blacksmithing – that serve and maintain historical artefacts and monuments to boost tourism.

UNISON (who stand out as a union that puts learning at the heart of their learning culture) had a project for school dinner staff – undertaking a course in “Understanding Autism” so that they could connect better with the young people who they served.  There are many more.

What the Union Learning Fund provision shows is the sheer reach of the union movement. We underestimate this. It shows our success in encouraging members to learn. It shows our success in mentoring and supporting members learning within and outside the workplace. And the ULF is a vital gateway to the new Apprenticeship framework.

And that brings me to the Minister.

Minister Farry deserves enormous credit for bringing forward a thoughtful, research based, modern European Apprenticeship framework, which we will see rolled out in 2015-16. I have been fortunate to play a small part in those deliberations, along with Clare Moore, on the strategic Ministerial Expert panel. The Minister and his Department have looked internationally at successful apprenticeship systems, and closely at systems such as in the Netherlands and, more particularly, in Switzerland.  The result is an intelligent framework that deserves our full attention.

He has accepted that Apprenticeship should be “special” it should not be devalued, it requires “currency” to work – currency with employers, currency with apprenticeships themselves and currency  in the labour market. Pitched at Level 3 right up to Level 8 it will be an achievement itself to get accepted onto an Apprenticeship programme.  That, in itself, will earn “currency”.

It is not a training “scheme”. We know all about training “schemes” in Northern Ireland – “schemes” in the Arthur Daley sense of the word. Our vocational training schemes, historically, and throughout the conflict, have been mainly palliatives to the political problem of long term unemployment – or to buy, at low cost, a degree of social peace. This latest Apprenticeship framework is NOT in that mould. It is a genuine and real attempt to provide quality workplace experience and learning, leading to real jobs.

The Minister has accepted the need for a broad partnership at strategic level. All good Apprenticeship frameworks have a Tri-partite approach at their heart. Employers, Unions and Government working together to serve their range of interests.

We want to support and help you, Minister, in this endeavour. We will commit to doing so. We are pleased to be represented at strategic level. However we want our unions, particularly our industrial unions, to make their contribution too, within the sectoral architecture as that rolls out. They have much to bring to the table.

We want to be involved, naturally, in negotiating the Apprenticeship contract. That is vital.  We want to contribute to the curriculum and have significant capacity and the resource base to do so. And there is a challenge to our movement in this too.

The teachers unions maintain a union density of over 90%. How? One reason is that we encourage student teachers to join, any and all unions, for free. Why could we not do the same for apprentices? We could, and should.  Our movement is well organised within the public sector.  However, the hollowing out of manufacturing under Thatcher in the 1980s, and since, has left our organisational base in the private sector denuded to say the least. Let’s not delude ourselves. We have work to do to organise and regain relevance across much of the private sector.

The new apprenticeship framework will open a window to the role of trade unions for young apprentices. Many young people have little or no experience or understanding of trade unions role. So opening membership to Apprentices will be about re-building the culture, younger. It will open to apprentices the possibility of a wide range of useful courses that we all provide, already, for free. We can enhance the Apprentices experience by providing free memberships, as well as shoring up and growing the trade unions of the future. That’s our challenge.

I have been very impressed by the way in which the Minister has attempted to resolve the Initial Teacher Education issue (that’s “Teacher Training” by the way). The report prepared by Pasi Sahlberg, a renowned Finnish educationalist, was an excellent, nuanced, report which deserved better treatment than it got. (The Sahlberg Report recommended the rationalisation of teacher education provision in Northern Ireland from five centres to one – LA).  I can’t say I was astonished at the manner in which the DUP and Sinn Fein closed the debate down – before it had really started – but it was disappointing, to say the least.  For me, the issue wasn’t about this institution or that, or about whether there should a campus in South Belfast, West Belfast, Coleraine or Derry – and I have no difficulty with institutions fighting their corner, if that’s what they have to do. It was that the debate was buried. We needed a debate. A long one. Yes, there are difficult issues in Initial Teacher Education, some of which are communally sensitive – but we need the debate.

Some would say the binning of the Sahlberg report was nakedly sectarian. Certainly it does not augur well for the Executive tackling the “Cost of Division”.  At minimum, it was a commentary on the immaturity of our political institutions.  And I hope the Minister – who has done the right thing in this matter, regardless of the brickbats – is able to find a way to resurrect Sahlberg.

Finally, before asking the Minister to speak, the Assembly’s political mandate runs to 2016, when DEL and DETI will merge to form a Department for the Economy. Whilst there is little time left in this mandate, we in the trade union movement look very jealously at our friends in Scotland and the efforts that they have made within the Mather Review.  The Mather Review, or the “Working Better Together” review is a serious attempt not just to improve Industrial Relations, but to improve productivity and competitiveness as well.  Our brothers and sisters in the Scottish trade union movement, through the STUC, have contributed to Mather – as have employers and their representative organisations. They have found broad agreement across a range of areas. If implemented, the Working Better Together Review will move Scottish industrial relations away from the adversarial mores of Anglo Saxon practice and towards a Scandinavian model.  I understand that this could not be effected by the end of this mandate, and time to secure broad agreement is necessary, but some scoping work could be started along that trajectory. I’ll leave you with that thought, Minister.