The role of FE colleges is changing, explains Sharron Robbie. Viewing businesses as customers, stakeholders and strategic partners is key, she says.

Recently, we’ve seen a real change in the way FE colleges connect and engage with employers.

There has been a major shift from the traditional, transactional attitude to a more strategic, partnership-focused approach. This change has been borne out of a number of key drivers.

The economic downturn is an obvious place to start. Employers require training that’s relevant, responsive and affordable rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ offer focused on NVQs and apprenticeships.

Industry needs to be leaner and sharper, with a workforce that’s multi-skilled, adds value and delivers efficiency savings. In response, colleges have to place employer engagement at the very heart of what we do.

To keep abreast of changing industry demands colleges have had to evolve, developing stronger communication strategies, building robust and sustainable partnerships that provide mutual benefits to both parties, and ensuring that we are perceived as well-established and credible by our local economic community.

Add to this the constant changes in government funding, in particular recent cuts to the adult skills budget and changes to the funding of apprenticeships.

Colleges have to be far more creative and entrepreneurial in our approach to identifying new income streams in order to realise income targets.

The FE sector needs to be more entrepreneurial, not only in what it delivers to students, but also in how it ‘does business’. Employers demand work-ready students. Enterprise and entrepreneurial activity are integral to ensuring students leave with the depth of technical knowledge and also the breadth of employability skills required by employers.

The positive impact FE has on the economic community cannot be underestimated — whether it’s our alignment of the curriculum to local key priority employment sectors to develop a labour market skilled in the competencies required for growth and competitiveness, or the support for business start-ups through incubation activity to promote wealth and job creation. Yet to continue to have this impact FE colleges need to think big and develop multi-purpose relationships with employers.

Employers should be seen as customers — purchasing skills training, not necessarily accredited. They should also be seen as stakeholders — participating in college governance, curriculum development and skills development to benefit the wider community. Finally, employers are also strategic partners — collaborating on new developments, infrastructure and joint ventures.

By developing this three-pronged relationship between FE and employers we can drive the local, national and global community forward, and still remain student-focussed.

At City College Plymouth we believe in the need to fundamentally transform our educational offer for a changing world of work, one driven by new businesses, new technologies and a global economy. This impacts what we deliver and how we deliver, and we have defined this in collaboration with employers.

We have developed and implemented
a robust employer engagement strategy over the past five years, and this is
yielding positive and mutually beneficial results. We have not achieved this overnight. It has taken time and money to establish and manage the excellent relationships
the college now has with industry. However, this investment is paying real

Our students and staff have access to a range of industry-focused activity enhancing the learning experience and supporting continual professional development. Our curriculum is designed and developed by industry. Our employer endorsement scheme ensures there is constant dialogue with the business community. We are seen by business and the wider communities as a valued strategic partner.

At City College Plymouth we have built a strong reputation with employers, ensuring our provision is employer-led and focused on growth areas identified as vital to the economic regeneration and success of our city and beyond. FE must embrace the opportunity to develop long term relationships with employers, providing as they do, strong partnership working, sustainable collaborations and community cohesion, helping to stimulate wealth and job creation.

Sharron Robbie, Head of corporate relations, employability and enterprise, City College Plymouth