The relationship between further education, the world of work, and local economic development is at a crossroads. With over one million young people unemployed for the first time, FE colleges are now in a unique position to revolutionise how they support learners’ migration from training into gainful employment.

The Wolf Review suggested we shift the focus from “the accrual of qualifications” to “employment outcomes” and this is the clear direction of travel for government. New funding streams have been opened up for colleges that train jobseekers, and colleges will begin experiencing funding outcomes related to a progression into employment. Additionally, the increase in apprenticeships and other incentives in the Youth Contract to boost youth employability all point to the pivotal role colleges must play in reversing the youth unemployment trend.

As FE principals consider the new role their institutions will play in getting young Britons working, there are three “employment truths” FE can borrow from the welfare-to-work sector that will boost employability outcomes and put their college on the front foot in tackling youth unemployment.

Qualifications matter much less than attitude
Our research into the value of vocational skills and apprenticeships found employers and young people recognise that securing meaningful work in today’s economy requires training beyond earned qualifications, namely an increased focus on employability or “soft skills”.

Communication skills, organisational skills, time keeping, team work and motivation are ranked as more important than qualifications achieved by the young people and employers we interviewed. FE colleges are well placed to incorporate these softer skills into the student experience. Learners must leave FE with not only work-ready qualifications but armed with a work-ready attitude.

Local economic growth relies on specific skill development
When an employer plans to invest in new manufacturing or distribution facilities, there is a long-term vision, looking at the likely labour market skills to support the business not in 2012 but in 2015, 2020 and beyond. FE institutions should also take a similar long-term approach when developing and marketing their course offering.

This requires better access to labour market intelligence, something colleges can achieve through more collaboration with their Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) or Chamber of Commerce. Colleges that trade in popular, but low need vocational skills (for instance media or hairdressing courses) for less well-known, but potentially more sought after skills (like process engineering and green construction) demanded by local entrepreneurship, will produce graduates with the training and qualifications that will help them secure sustainable employment.

Matchmaking and networking are critical to recruitment success
Mentors and professional role models build young people’s confidence, passion and experience, all critical factors for securing work in the current jobs market. Equally, local employers, with limited resources to recruit, benefit from access to a pool of skilled, passionate young employees. Working with LEPs or Chambers of Commerce, colleges can align local business services to effectively join up an “employer offer”.

Existing digitally or through traditional jobs boards and networking, colleges must increase employers’ engagement with learners before the official job search begins. Learners can build employability skills through industry master classes and mentoring schemes that give them access to successful local individuals and SMEs.

Colleges needn’t go it alone when it comes to placing employability at the heart of their student support. Collaborating with one another and working in partnership with organisations that have strong track records in addressing employability needs and securing job outcomes will provide FE learners with the additional career support necessary to secure a foot on the job ladder in a challenging labour market.

Whether through an outsourced or tailored model, colleges that set employment-outcomes at the heart of their operations will not only empower young people to build lasting careers, but prove their contribution to a competitive labour market ready to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.

Mike Lee, Head of Skills and Young People, Working Links