Further meetings with Adrienne Bird

I met Adrienne Bird at a Board meeting in 1994.

She surprised me one day a month or so later by setting up a meeting with me. It was at a time when there was considerable animosity between employers, employer bodies and trade unions.

When she arrived at our training centre she didn’t want to go inside – it would look like the union official was consorting with the employer body which ran the training centre. So, we walked up and down the street between the factory units in Eastleigh, Edenvale where our training centre was situated.

She told me that the National Training Strategy Initiative document had generated substantial interest. Various stakeholders were beginning to look at how the National Qualifications Framework could be implemented. Representatives from the previous process had formed what was being called Working Group 9. She was pulling in additional people to participate in this work.

So I discovered early on she had this significant gift of mobilizing people from a range of stakeholders in pursuit of her vision.

One of the elements that they were exploring was what eventually became the Critical Crossfield Outcomes. The model which triggered this concept was Australian. There they were known as the Mayer Key Competencies. 

The other element was career pathing. She was looking for a way to run a career pathing project across a number of sectors and industries. She was interested in the way that the plastics industry had structured their career path.

It was the first time I heard the expression “from sweeper to engineer.” From that concept flowed two further elements in our discussions

A third element in our discussions was on the nature and structure of qualifications for the workplace.

A final element was that of training programme design.  Key to this element was to assist the thousands of illiterate workers to become literate and so enable them to progress beyond the low-level positions the lack of literacy trapped them in.

I’ll deal with each element in other blog posts.

Meeting Adrienne Bird

I remember the scene quite clearly – the morning sun was shining in through the windows a restaurant in the new industrial suburb of Meadowdale on 3 February 1994. It was an important meeting of the Plastics Industry Training Board.

The meeting was fraught with tension not related to what I was doing. The unions were attending for the first time. They had arrived at the meeting with the objective of closing down the Board and re-starting the establishment process. The PITB had initially been established without proper union participation. So the Board had invited several of the major unions to this Board meeting to try and thrash out a way forward. We knew who was coming and Adrienne’s reputation as a feisty opponent preceded her.

I had been seconded to the PITB in late 1992 to develop a National Training Plan. I was keyed up. I had been asked to do a presentation on the work done to date. I had constructed a career path framework. The framework showed a  progression from operator to engineer (technical pathway) or general manager (management pathway). I had also constructed a curriculum model on which these progressions would be based.

Plastics then were still a relatively new material and there were few formal  qualifications. So the model was, in part, based on a dual qualification model, i.e. formal qualification + plus a plastics qualification, e.g. BSc Engineering + plastics component.

Plastics, despite its current reputation as an ecological threat, is not just about material for single use packaging. Many of the materials are used in products essential to our way of life, cell phones, computers, water pipes, electrical insulation, contact lenses, medical products and devices, automotive and aircraft components, space ships and so on.

My presentation (on an Over Head Projector in those days) was slotted in before the formal start of the Board meeting. I did the presentation and then I took questions.

Adrienne leapt into the fray immediately. She didn’t tackle the big picture as I had feared but the details. The one that still sticks in my mind was the little note at each step in the  career path: Entry requirements. She challenged this and suggested we should rather have a label at the top of each block stating Exit requirements. This led to a quite a spirited debate between us.

The chairman, Ralph Oxenham, cut it short. He was concerned, as he told me later, that our argument would jeopardise the good will the presentation seemed to have achieved.

We broke for tea and during tea Adrienne and I engaged in a further discussion about the career path and the curriculum model I was proposing. She then went off to caucus with her comrades from the unions.

When the Board meeting proper started Adrienne told the board, that they had come there to demand that the board go through the establishment process all over again and this time involve the unions as  a legitimate partner. But because of the “interesting” ideas that had been tabled the unions were happy to allow the work of the Board to continue while they negotiated an equitable participation for the unions in the Board.

It was a seminal moment for the work we had done to date and for the Board. In a strange way it set the tone for all future discussions. Employer and union representatives could engage in a productive discussions even when the initial participants were replaced by new comers. This conversation continued until the Boards were merged into SETAs in early 2000.

For me, personally, it was also a seminal moment. Tectonic plates in my mind were poised to shift. \And this tiny little trigger from entry to exit set them in motion. It also set in motion a partnership and a friendship which endured until just before her death in 2019. Litle did I now it at the time but it also changed the trajectory of my career.