Learning the hard way
By Jim Thomas
When I was first appointed as the Night Shift Shop Steward for the XPO Stone Site. Which deals with the Sainsbury contract, I asked other colleagues on the other shift to help me keep in contact with all the guys. The depot works 7 days a week and it is impossible for one person to try and keep in contact with all the troops. From the people I asked a few came back to me saying they would prefer not to be involved as their reading and writing skills were not that good and they felt that they did not have the confidence.
This prompted me to look into how to support my colleagues, so I got permission to attend both the Stage One and Stage Two ULR (Union Learning Representative) courses at Ruskin College, Oxford. From the courses I got fired up with enthusiasm to go back and try and make a real difference at work. I had great plans to get every employee educated to some level and have them all undertaking courses, and I thought I could do this instantly. Little did I realise at the time how hard this process might be and how long it would take to get it started. Knowing what the end result would be, it would be worth all the hard work.
My first step on the road to trying to get education to the masses was to bring this up at every monthly union meeting with management along with all the other issues we had, and there were always quite a few. I knew if I could get senior management on board this would be the first big step forward. At the ULR courses I attended they did not tell me how hard it would be to try and get this started and I think without the assistance of the URTU Learning project team it may never have happened.
Barry Marks who was the project worker at the time for the URTU Learning project, came to the site and with his perseverance manged to get the depot manager to agree and sign a Learning Agreement. This was a great step forward as we now had management looking at learning in a positive way.
With the help and support from Barry we were then granted a learning centre; it was not much the room was only 3.5×2.5 meters and we could only fit one small desk and computer, the room was also situated right out site the entrance turnstiles. This however was a great initial victory and a step forward as it showed we were actually making progress.
At every meeting I still kept bringing up that we needed a better learning centre, and to do more in relation to education. I was not going to sit complacent on my small but significant victory as I knew I had to keep negotiating. Eventually after some time I wore them down and was granted a Portakabin to use as the learning centre, which we named ‘The Hub’.
With the help from the URTU Learning project we soon had this new learning centre up and running. I then issued a learning survey to the troops to try and establish what their educational needs were. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of completed surveys I got back, and it showed that people were really interested in learning and improving themselves.
In July 2017 the site got an announcement that by March 2019 the site would close. I am not sure how long it would have taken me to get management to take the next step forward with learning and look at courses, without this announcement. With the site closure hanging over all our heads HR realised that they had to equip the workers with the skills required to re-enter the jobs market.
With the assistance from HR and the continuing support from the URTU Learning Project, we have now got Derwentside College on board. They have visited the site for both the day shifts and night shifts to find out the learning requirements, and from this information found courses and classrooms for the workers. We have now got 24 people undertaking NVQ’s in Warehousing and Management, Team Leading and Business Studies, with a further 42 colleagues due to start functional skills courses in Maths and English and ICT. This was a great step forward but was a bitter sweet victory knowing that without the site closure this step may have taken a lot longer to happen.
I have found through this whole process that it is not a quick fix thing but a hard slog, however knowing that you have helped your colleagues as a result makes it well worth it. I found that HR can be your greatest allies, if you can get them on board this will make it easier as they deal with the funding and can agree release time.
I also know that without the support from the URTU Learning team especially Judith Swift who took over as my Project Worker after Barry Marks that I may not have got this far. URTU Learning can come in and assist with negotiations with management, liaise with providers to find the most suitable ones for your needs, as well as assisting with surveys, posters and any resources you may need. They have also been there to support me through these tough times by listening to my troubles and triumphs and giving me helpful advice.
If you are looking at getting learning going in the workplace, I would recommend speaking with your project worker. Setting yourself small targets and ticking them off when you complete them. It does not matter if you complete them out of order as each one is a great achievement. Most importantly be ready for a long slog as this may not be a quick process but is well worth it and just never give up.