EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

VT Shipbuilding, UK: Fostering employability


United Kingdom
Organisation Size: 
Metal and machinery
Fostering employability

VT Shipbuilding is one of the last remaining major shipyards in the UK. It is currently facing the challenge of ensuring it has an adequately trained workforce to cope with a significant surge in warship orders from the UK Ministry of Defence. With many of its skilled workers approaching retirement age, the company has gone beyond the vocational training measures negotiated with its trade unions and has given support to a new workplace learning initiative.

Organisational background

VT Shipbuilding is a division of the VT Group, a UK quoted company that is also involved in defence contracting, communications and education and training. The group as a whole has over 12,000 employees and a turnover of over GBP850 million. VT Shipbuilding made a GBP10.3 million operating profit on turnover of GBP152.5 million in 2005 and has around 1,000 employees.

VT Shipbuilding is one of the few remaining shipyards in the UK that has the capacity to tackle major construction projects. It is currently involved in production of the Type 45 warships and an offshore patrol vessel for the Royal Navy. It is also part of an alliance of companies working on a new aircraft carrier project.

The company moved to a new facility in Portsmouth in southern England in 2002 and the last few years have been marked by a major reorganising and restructuring process.

The company recognises all the main shipbuilding unions – the technical and professional union Amicus, the TGWU and GMB general unions, the UCATT building and technicians’ union and Prospect, the union for specialist and managerial staff.

The key government policies that have had a bearing on training and learning at VT are the new rights for union learning reps established by the 2002 Employment Act, the funding stream for unions and companies to collaborate to receive financial support for specific learning projects and the Skills for Life campaign to improve basic skills.

Description of the initiative

Training has been a central concern for VT Shipbuilding for many years and a matter for negotiation with the trade unions. For example, the company has been running an apprenticeship scheme since 1999, under which 14 apprentices are trained up to level 3 of the National Vocational Qualifications every year. The apprenticeship agreement sets out a four-phase scheme, which specifies what qualifications are necessary for each stage and the pay rates trainees can expect as they progress.

VT Shipbuilding has also joined with a number of organisations – for example, the Learning and Skills Council, the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the SEMTA manufacturing sector skills council – to promote careers in engineering, provide vocational training for young people and older adults and establish a set of specific occupational standards. VT is also working with Nottingham Trent and Portsmouth universities to develop a modular, or points-based, vocational degree that could be delivered in the workplace as part of the Skills for Life project.

The emphasis placed on training and learning has further intensified in recent years as a result of a number of key factors. The first is the move to the state-of-the-art facility in Portsmouth and the need to ensure that the workforce was able to take full advantage of new technology in the shipbuilding industry. The second is the age profile of the industry, with a large proportion of older skilled workers approaching retirement and the need to address this potential skills shortage. The third factor is the decision by the UK Ministry of Defence to commission a number of major shipbuilding projects, including new destroyers and aircraft carriers. This is the biggest batch of orders for decades and will lead to a 50% increase in the shipbuilding workforce by 2009.

Given this background, the company agreed to sit down with the unions and discuss what kind of learning initiatives could be taken to boost basic skills across the workforce. The next stage was to broaden the discussion by involving representatives of the local Learning and Skills Council and Eastleigh College, one of the main local providers of basic skills training. With support from these partners, the company and trade unions were able to apply for funding from the government’s Union Learning Fund, which helped them to set up a workplace learning centre.

Ten union learning reps took the TUC learning rep course, during which they drafted the learning agreement. Other union reps (shop stewards and safety reps) then went on the first courses at the learning centre, which was then formally opened to the rest of the workforce, with IT courses running from July 2002.

The union learning reps carried out a survey of learning needs which revealed that a large number of workers had left school without any qualifications and had had no training since then. The project therefore focused on extending opportunities for Skills for Life learning and further IT courses in the period from September 2003 to August 2005.

The South East England Development Agency also provided further funding. The Agency is endeavouring to boost skill levels across the region, and its support made it possible to advise 150 potential learners about courses they would be interested in; develop individual action plans for at least 50 learners, encouraging them to take national tests at levels 1 and 2; provide IT courses for at least 75 workers; and provide further union learning rep training, including Skills for Life awareness courses, which were also made available to management.


From the beginning, an important element of the success of the project was the idea that the basic skills training would be separate from the normal vocational training provided by the company. Employees were encouraged to respond to the learning needs questionnaire with a commitment that the information provided would not be available to the employer to use in any way in relation to pay, performance appraisal or redundancy selection.

It also followed that it was important that the actual training provided was at arm’s length from company involvement, with the trade union running the learning centre rather than contracting it out. This approach was endorsed by the human resources director, Trevor Cartwright, who said, ‘The good thing about the learning centre is that staff feel there’s no manager or foreman watching over them.’

The role of union learning representatives is important in a similar way in that they can talk in confidence with their work colleagues and discuss what sort of training is suitable, thus helping to reduce the stigma of employees coming forward to ask for basic skills training.

Since June 2005, 176 employees have sat national tests in literacy and 172 in numeracy. Ninety-eight employees have completed an information and communications technology course accredited by the National Open College Network.

The company says that the IT training has meant that shop floor workers are now able to take up more technical programming themselves and therefore save time for office-based staff. VT also says that productivity has increased by 20%, with positive results for accident rates and sickness absence as well.

VT management also believes that the initiative has helped change the culture within the company, and chief executive Paul Lester sees it not as a ‘luxury but essential. If we don’t focus on improving essential skills and developing everyone in the organisation, we will fail as a business.’

The project has twice been recognised with an award by the Business in the Community corporate responsibility charity.

Exemplary and contextual factors

The VT training initiative demonstrates how the needs of the workforce for basic training and those of a company for a better motivated and educated workforce can come together and be effectively addressed. This is particularly the case where the company is willing to provide time and resources to support a project while allowing the trade unions considerable control over day-to-day implementation.

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