EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Serco, UK: Fostering employability


United Kingdom
Organisation Size: 
Consultancy business services
Fostering employability

The international business support services company, Serco, is developing a basic skills programme, Skills for You, which is being gradually rolled out across all its UK-based contracts. The initiative aims to make basic skills training as relevant as possible to a wide range of different workers. The company is trying to be flexible so that the training can fit in with the needs of workers and management across its varied range of contracts.

Organisational background

Serco is an outsourcing support services company that provides a wide range of services to mainly public as well as private sector organisations. It operates in central and local government, health, education, scientific research, defence, traffic management and transport.

Serco has been involved in providing contract service to the UK Ministry of Defence for many years, originally when it was part of the RCA group of companies. It became an independent company through a management buyout in 1987 and was floated on the stock exchange in 1988.

Serco employs around 37,250 workers worldwide, with 29,000 in the UK, where it does 75% of its business. In 2005, its GBP2.3 billion turnover generated pre-tax profits of GBP91.5 million.

Serco deals with several different trade unions, mostly at local level in both the public and private sectors because of the wide variety of contracts it runs.

Labour governments since 1997 have put a considerable emphasis on improving adults’ basic skills with a focus on helping those in employment through workplace initiatives. The Skills for Life strategy was launched in 2001, setting out a range of measures to help adults in and out of work get access to training. Employers can get help, advice and information on sources of funding from the Train for Gain programme, set up in 2005.

Description of the initiative

Skills for You is Serco’s basic skills training initiative, aimed at improving employees’ literacy, numeracy and language abilities. The scheme is up and running in 20 contracts so far, but the company intends to extend it to all its contracts across the UK.

The company runs a wide range of contracts across diversified sectors, such as hospital ancillary services, scientific research and defence operations. It decided to introduce Skills for You on a pilot basis. The company discusses the initiative with local managers, who then meet with trade union representatives to agree the best way of implementing the scheme at local level with a view to making it as straightforward as possible from a management perspective and as attractive as possible from the employees’ point of view.

Among the approaches taken has been a focus on basic skills needed for concrete tasks such as understanding a pay slip, writing a business letter or preparing a CV. The company believes that this has helped make the training more attractive to employees, recognising that many with poor basic skills may have had negative experiences with formal education.

The outcome can be very different depending on the specific needs of the workforce. Serco Denholm is the company’s subsidiary running port services for the Royal Navy in Portsmouth on the south coast of England. The contract manager met the two recognised trade unions on the site (Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Prospect union representing managerial and specialist staff) and explained the initiative and discussed the best way of introducing it.

Management and unions agreed to appoint Portsmouth College as the training provider because of its willingness to consider flexible ways of delivering the training. A team visited the site to talk to all Serco Denholm employees and arrangements were made for all employees to take a confidential assessment test if they wished to do so. Twenty-five staff went through the assessment, with 17 identified as having basic learning needs, three of which were diagnosed as having dyslexia.

It was agreed that Portsmouth College provide training on a weekly basis but with considerable flexibility so that learners can drop in at different times of the day to fit in with shifts or work commitments.

Similar approaches have been adopted at other workplaces, providing employees with a chance to have their skill levels assessed and find out about the kinds of courses on offer. For example, the company has a contract with Airbus UK in Filton near Bristol. Following local discussions with trade unions, Filton College ran an open day and 35 workers expressed an interest in English courses. Twenty workers took up the offer, but this soon had a knock-on effect and the courses were extended for another year, with a waiting list of employees.

The nature of the courses may vary depending on the particular needs of the local workforce. At Leicester Royal Infirmary, English as a Second Language training was seen as a priority and 16 staff there have completed a level 2 certificate.

Overall, by the end of 2005, 1,141 employees had completed assessments and 214 had gained their first qualifications.


Figures from the company indicate that on average, 20% of workers on each contract have taken advantage of the training on offer from Skills for You. It argues that this has had a tangible impact on employees’ confidence and abilities, with an increase in the number of workers applying for promotion and supervisory positions.

In some cases, for example on the Airbus contract in Filton, local managers believe that the initiative has been helpful in dealing with recruitment difficulties in the area. It not only increases the skills and capabilities of the existing workforce, but is also an additional benefit in attracting new staff who are keen to improve their basic skills.

The company also highlights the impact that improved basic skills have on workers’ lives outside work, as they have greater confidence to deal with situations at home and in their local communities.

The challenge for Serco has been to implement the programme across such a wide range of different contracts, in different workplaces and with different groups of workers. The consultations with local managers and then discussions between local managers and trade unions have been important in the flexible approach to introducing the initiative and achieving the level of success in the projects implemented so far.

It is also significant that the company aims to introduce the scheme in all of its 600 UK contracts, irrespective of the amount of time those contracts have to run. This shows a commitment to the workforce over the longer term, even though the company may only be guaranteed to hold the contract for four or five years.

Serco’s Skills for You programme has won recognition from the Business in the Community independent charity, which gave the scheme a ‘big tick’ award for excellence, and it won the Rentokil Initial Skills for Life award in 2005.

Exemplary and contextual factors

The Serco Skills for You initiative shows that it is possible to deliver an innovative basic skills programme across a wide range of different workplaces by tailoring the training to meet the local needs of the employees and managers. It also demonstrates that an employer whose business is dominated by relatively short-term contracts can make a longer-term investment in the improved training and learning of its varied groups of employees.

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