FE colleges are not industry experts - partnerships with employers are vital to tackle skills gaps, says Dr Sam Parrett OBE.

With FE being placed in pole position to drive the economy forward post-Covid, thoughts are turning to what future provision should look like and how it should be delivered. 

The Skills for Jobs White Paper has a clear steer towards an employer-led approach, which much of FE has already embraced and is keen to build on.  

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill presented to Parliament this week highlighted the government’s commitment to lifelong learning, with (among other things) an expansion of funded adult courses to help people of all ages and from all backgrounds to upskill, retrain and secure fulfilling employment.

Seeing adult education at the top of the political agenda was both unique and encouraging – and this enthusiasm needs to be maintained.

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And so begins the hard part to ensure that the sector tackles this huge task effectively, training people in the right way, in the right places, with the right support. 

The disconnect between employer need and skills

As every business-related report suggests, the economy is changing rapidly and employer needs are changing. Every single sector is undergoing some sort of digital transformation and the pandemic has irreversibly changed the way much business is conducted.  

Education policy rarely moves at the same speed as industry development, meaning there is an inevitable disconnect between employer need, the skills being taught and the qualifications being awarded.  

Strengthening relationships with employers and securing their input goes some way towards addressing this, but we also need consistency and support from government to ensure that education policy and skills needs are genuinely aligned – together with the development of new relevant and accredited qualifications by awarding bodies.  

This is a particular issue for newer industries, where curricula and qualifications may not yet exist – but where there is a clear and growing demand for specific skills. Green technologies and the world’s focus on reaching net carbon targets is a prime example. Colleges are working hard to not only map out their own organisation’s sustainability plans, but also to tailor their provision to meet the changing skills needs of other employers and the wider economy. 

Establishing a 'green ethos'

Our college’s own sustainability plan covers all our operations from procurement to waste management, as well as establishing an updated curriculum offer that includes sustainability and social awareness, as well as the specific new green skills that employers need.  

FE colleges are not, however, industry experts. This expertise lies with employers and we need their insight if we are to create study programmes and organisational strategies that are genuinely relevant and fit for purpose – both now and in the future. 

With the guidance of our employer advisory boards, we are building green skills into our Stem provision and construction courses. Units relating specifically to green technologies and sustainability are included and we are developing plans to expand Stem facilities at our Bromley Campus to meet future demand in this sector. 

As well establishing updated curricula and a "greener" ethos, colleges need the right tutors, who are equipped with the expertise and credibility to deliver high-quality teaching. This, again, is particularly challenging for newer industries, as less of these "experts" even exist, let alone want to devote their career to sharing knowledge with the next generation. 

To help address this, greater recognition of dual professionalism is needed within FE – giving adequate status to individuals who are both industry experts and teaching professionals. 

This isn’t just about green skills; it relates to all vocations and trades that are changing rapidly as the technology juggernaut races on. Take motor vehicle courses: with the increasing electrification of cars, the skills required to be an effective mechanic are increasingly different to what they were even just a few years ago. 

This change comes with a financial burden to colleges, too, as new and highly specialised equipment is needed. A Tesla, for example, is a great deal more expensive than an old wreck of a car ready to be scrapped – which up until recently would have been perfectly adequate for our trainee mechanics. 

This issue of "kit" and indeed the buildings and facilities required is another real challenge in terms of implementing more effective skills-focused training. Equipment is not only expensive, but the pace at which technology is moving also means that it has a very finite lifespan. Technology being developed today will have moved on and be out of date in three years’ time. 

Again, the way to address this is via genuine, two-way partnerships with employers, suppliers and manufacturers. Industry must understand the crucial role it needs to play to secure a pipeline of adequately skilled future employees.

Attracting student talent

Tempting students into "new" industry areas – such as green technology and logistics – is yet another challenge. Many roles in these sectors are new (some may not even exist yet) and are likely not to be known about by the very people who would benefit from the opportunities. 

High-quality careers information, advice and guidance is crucial and best delivered by the industry experts on the ground, who have the real insight into the exciting and aspirational careers available. 

Much onus is on FE to deliver post-Covid prosperity, which I believe the sector is more than capable of. However, we can’t do it alone and we can’t do by "sticking to what we know". 

Colleges need to get involved in the inevitable skills revolution and lead by example in accepting change and seeking out new opportunities, partnerships and collaborations. 

This article appears in Tes - May 2021


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