• Working with FE colleges

  • Businesses working with FE colleges – With responses from more than 600 employers of all sizes and in all sectors in England, the CBI/Edexcel education and skills survey 2008 – 10 gives important insights into further education issues from a business perspective. Among the key points are:

    • The single most frequently mentioned benefit flowing from the provision of training and development was improved staff morale/lower turnover, followed by improved productivity and better customer service
    • Most employers were not confident there would be sufficient skilled people available to meet their future needs
    • Employers believed that what mattered most to employees was training to help them carry out their current roles
    • Around a fifth of the training provided or supported by employers typically leads to accredited qualifications, rising to 25% among employers who have links with FE colleges
    • The biggest barriers to expansion of accredited training concerned cost in terms of lost working time and financial cost
    • Shortfalls in literacy, numeracy and IT skills among at least some employees were seen as widespread
    • Almost half the employers surveyed had a link with an FE college or colleges
    • Among those not using colleges, many employers were unsure about what a college could provide and who to contact.

    Employer links with further education

    Employers were asked about any links they had with educational establishments, including FE colleges. In all, 299 participants (47%) reported links with FE colleges specifically. Of those organisations reporting links to at least one college, more than 60% reported that they used the college(s) to provide workforce development to at least some extent. This equates to 29.5% of all the 637 organisations taking part in the survey.

    Organisations that had not developed links of any kind with FE colleges were asked about the barriers to doing so. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most frequent response was that they had no identified need for college services – this leaves open the question of whether this was because of uncertainty about how colleges might be able to help. Turning to other factors, a quarter said they had not developed links because of a lack of information about what colleges offer and a similar proportion pointed to lack of information about who to contact. About one-in-four felt better quality training was available elsewhere.

    Commitment to employer engagement

    A fundamental requirement for achieving successful engagement with employers is that a college should be committed to this outcome. Superficially, this seems an obvious point. But time and again employer and college interviewees stressed the critical importance of staff at all levels of an FE college being committed to engaging with employers. Many colleges have a strategic view of where employer engagement fits in, recognising the scale of potential business that can result. As one interviewee summed it up: “Employer engagement is hugely important to us. The number of 16-18 year-olds doesn’t change much from year to year, but there is no limit to the work we can do for employers.” The commitment needs to permeate a college’s approach and activities. As one college principal warned:

    “Don’t do employer engagement unless you are absolutely committed to it. Don’t dabble and fail, as it will hurt employers’ views of the FE sector as a whole. But if you do succeed, the value of work with employers can be high.”

    Raising awareness among employers

    While colleges have successfully forged links with many employers, there are still employers with no ties with an FE college. As the survey results in chapter 2 showed, many of these have not identified how a college might help them or simply lack information about what colleges can offer. In brief, there is a need for effective marketing, promotion and explanation.

    Employer-led or college-led?

    It is now generally accepted that training should be employer-led, but the reality of translating employers’ needs into coherent training programmes is much more complicated. A key starting point is the need for dialogue on these issues to be conducted in terms meaningful to employers:

    “One of the problems is FE colleges using training language when they go into businesses and saying – ‘how many NVQs would you like? Or, how many management training packages would you like?’… and businesses think ‘how the hell would I know? I need three people who can do that, I don’t care about the bit of paper’.” The case studies also make clear the value of conducting a training needs analysis to ensure perceived needs are soundly based – what one college described as a “demand-led, needs-based approach”.

    A variety of examples are illustrated in the case studies, such as West Nottinghamshire College’s adoption of an online tool to assess basic skills within First UK Bus or Derby College’s approach: “Typically, with new clients we enter into a ‘progression’ contract.

    We visit the employer to carry out a skills assessment on the shopfloor, let them know what the results of this are and offer qualifications according to the needs, such as Entry Level 1 or Skills for Life. We then put people through a further assessment day, a ‘skills scan.’”

    A theme emerging repeatedly during the case studies is the importance of addressing real skill needs that enhance the performance of organisations, seeing fulfilment of these as the primary objective – not the achievement of qualifications for their own sake: “Historically, the focus has always been on the learner and the impact of learning and development has been evaluated on an individual basis. The new standard [the Training Quality Standard] will rightly force providers to evaluate the effects on the organisation and consider measures such as staff retention, productivity and so on. Our approach now is a training needs analysis as a first step to evaluate what the employer needs are so that the training and development can contribute to organisational effectiveness.”

    Spin-off benefits

    Engaging with employers is an evolutionary process. As one interviewee put it:

    “Working with employers helps us to understand business better, which enables us to work more effectively with other employers. It also helps us to change our own internal culture, so that staff understand and focus more on employer needs.”

    Wider benefits:

    “The work we’ve done with employers has made this a better college … If you do a lot of work with many different organisations, it inevitably affects your own business processes. You see things that are absolutely marvellous, and you think: ‘I’m going to have a piece of that and use it as part of our strategic and business-planning cycle.’ ”

    Colleges in the case studies have a variety of arrangements for maintaining links with employers. Often the prime aim is to secure employer input on the relevance and range of college courses.

    Stoke on Trent College, for example, has acted as facilitator for the 600-member employer network for tourism and leisure in Staffordshire, while West Suffolk College draws on a panel of 20 employers in the region to advise on curriculum needs. Feedback and input from employers are clearly essential if colleges are to adapt their offerings to meet the changing needs of business.

    As one employer said:

    “It’s important to be involved with colleges, not just for our benefit, but also for the students’ sake too.”

    Lessons from the case studies

    Distilling the main points from this analysis points to the following lessons to strengthen employer-college partnership for the benefit of both parties:

    • Colleges need to be clear about the place of employer engagement in their overall strategies. If it is to play a major part, that commitment needs to permeate the college’s approach and activities at all levels and be communicated to staff
    • Successful employer engagement involves recognising the employer as the primary client and establishing processes to support that – a major cultural adjustment
    • Effective marketing, promotion and explanation of college services are essential to extend the client base. This can be done in many different ways – there are no ‘wrong’ approaches
    • One of the best sources of business is repeat business, so client satisfaction is essential
    • Developing a reputation for sectoral expertise can be a major asset
    • Dialogue with employers on training issues must be based on skill needs and conducted in business language, not in the language of education and qualifications
    • Colleges have an essential role to play in interpreting and analysing employers’ needs in ways that allow effective training programmes to be put in place.