Making distance learning a reality in logistics

In part one of this blog, we shared a discussion with Simon Tindall, Head of New Business BDU, and Liz Hanway, Sector Lead for Transport and Logistics BDU, from the Open University about how learning and development has changed, in particular in relation to e-learning and distance learning, and what that could mean for logistics.

Here we share the next instalment, looking at topics how distance learning can support the future skills agenda, and what resources are available now to employers and employees in the logistics sector, including those on furlough or facing redundancy. Read on for more or listen to the original interview in our latest Talent in Logistics podcast.

Boris Johnson recently delivered a speech at Dudley College, and he said about the skills agenda, about levelling up Britain, and the investment in infrastructure. He talked specifically about apprenticeships. Distance learning is going to form a big part of that skills agenda going forward. What do you think needs to be done to make this a reality? 

[Simon Tindall]: – Well, I think some of it is already a reality today. When the recession started, we began doing quite a lot of work with UK governments across the four nations to build awareness of what skills opportunities there already were. So, we were involved in a digital skills toolkit that the government launched a couple of months ago, which links to Open University courses.

One of the key things that people don’t always understand about the Open University is that we have a very strong social remit and subsequently, that manifests itself in a huge provision of free education. Through our Open Learn Portal, we have something like around 10,000 hours of free online content, which covers everything from basic Maths and English to softer skills. 

The other key piece is what’s the next progression, and I think that comes back to tying skills availability and skills attainment to job opportunity. People want to undertake skills to get them to their next career goal, be that to get a job, to get a better job, to get promoted, etc. There is still work to be done to link skills provision towards job availability so that people can directly see that by undertaking a number of courses they get to the next stage of their career.

[Liz Hanway]: A lot of industries that I’m speaking to at the moment are having to make that awful decision of bringing people back from furlough and potentially having to make them redundant and they care about these people, but their hands are tied. How can they best support those people? Where can they signpost them to? Part of my role is helping them to do that. There are resources out there. 

In terms of making distance learning a reality, there needs to be some key steering groups to actually make this signposting possible. We need employers to really push it as well.

If I think about the logistics sector specifically, I think it is definitely one that needs some guidance and some tools for people, including young people. Do you agree?

[LH]: Definitely. The world is changing quite dramatically. And even in the world of logistics, we’re crying out for HGV drivers, but in 10 years’ time, are we going to have automated vehicles? Are we going to have drones dropping parcels for us? All of these are new challenges where you need forward thinking managers, but you also need to recognise that you need a workforce that isn’t necessarily progressing up a ladder but has very transferable skills, understands what those transferable skills are, and can move around the business. 

What I am seeing is people sadly losing their jobs in the logistics area, and they may have been in that environment for their whole working lives.  So, I’m working very closely with, for example, a baggage handling company, and actually the employees probably have all the skills to help Royal Mail and get all our post delivered. So, it’s about working with employers to make those skills analysis, mapping them out and helping them put them back into employment where there is work. 

You mentioned the OU has got courses that people can utilize for free and that can help them with those transferable skills, soft skills etc. Can you tell people where they can access some of that information, and if there’s any specific resources that might help if they worked in the logistics sector?

The first place to go to is the Open Learn site, which has got all our free course material or Google “skills for work” or “skills for life”. Skills for work has anything from leadership or management to effective timekeeping. On skills for life, there’s a new one we’ve just done with Money Saving Expert. There might be people who are now faced with a situation where there may be on furlough only getting 80% of their salary and they need to know how to better budget for things. There are also some courses on bereavement as people have potentially been losing people during this. Then, the second thing to look at is “Open Learn DWP”.

And then I would say specifically to employers, as I’m hearing quite a lot that learning and development budgets are being cut, that it’s about working with what you might have. So obviously there is still the apprenticeship levy and many larger employers are saying they haven’t spent it yet. So just to remind people that small companies can still take advantage of this 90% of funding for potentially putting employees on a degree program or a lower level apprenticeship program.

From the OU, we can support on the leadership and management side of the apprenticeship, so you could even currently get an MBA qualification through an apprenticeship. The other big thing that a lot of logistics companies are looking at is the move to digital transformation. So, we do the digital apprenticeship as well. If it is lower levels that people are looking at, we will try and do a bit of a mapping with the employer and we’ve got several partners that we might be able to signpost employers on to.

There is a whole host in the free open learn site I mentioned earlier. So just to name a few courses that I think would be interesting. 

  • Succeed in learning – looks at people and identifies the common skills that they’ve got and what skills they can transfer into their next job, or career role
  • Effective communication in the workplace – managers now, that are probably used to seeing their colleagues and/or team face to face, have now got rely on communication by phone, or by e-mail. So different ways of working.
  • Transport and sustainability – where leaders are maybe thinking about changes you might have to do in your operations, and how actually can we do this long-term. There is a similar one on supply chain sustainability too. 
  • Managing virtual projects  If you think about what’s going on in, in transport, one of the many changes is how you actually manage projects. So, you might have projects that have started, and now you have large teams all over the place, you’ve got now manage these projects virtually. 
  • How teams work – that looks at all the different behaviours, how do you motivate your team when you’re not seeing them? You’re not having necessarily having one to ones, you’re all in different places, you’re online and what things you need to be aware of.

If organisations do have some learning and development budget, I would encourage them to think about not necessarily signing people for full degrees, but maybe bite size courses – the Open University has short courses. 

Or you can just take a module from that degree program. You can come to the university and study many different modules over a period of time (say, 15 years) and come out with what we call an open degree – it’s basically a bespoke degree to yourself. 

We’ve got some really good courses at a postgraduate level if you’ve got senior leaders. 

For more information on the Open University, visit 

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