With their close employer relationships, colleges have a major advantage over schools and universities, says Ronel Lehmann

For years there has been discussion around the growing skills gaps faced by UK industry. With Brexit looming, the worry about filling skilled jobs has intensified and many employers are urgently looking at ways to address the issue.

Fifty years ago, technical education suffered from snobbery. People began to view academic achievement as the main driver of success, and grammar schools became the institution of choice, ahead of technical schools and colleges.

Traditional polytechnics rebranded themselves as universities, with vocational learning taking a back seat and an academic focus taking priority. This supported the previous government’s target of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education.

Yet it was an evidently flawed approach, as here we are in 2018 with the demand for skilled workers growing exponentially. Employers complain that graduates are not adequately prepared for the world of work – hardly surprising considering the lack of emphasis on careers throughout the entire school system.

Compounding this problem, further-education colleges, which tend to have a much sharper focus on skills and careers, are severely underfunded and not admired enough for the vital technical and vocational provision they offer.

Having been an employer for many years, in industries from finance to communications, I now help young people from a range of backgrounds to get into their chosen career. Many have armfuls of high-quality qualifications, perhaps from the best schools and universities, yet woefully lack the skills needed in a commercial environment.

Learner recruitment needs to be about promoting a route to a fulfilling career

Skills such as being able to shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye sound basic but, believe me, are often missing. Presenting information confidently to other people doesn’t come naturally to many and must be taught. Then there is workplace etiquette – being part of a team, getting to work on time and striving to do your very best. Again, these skills can be lacking if young people have never been taught them or set foot in a workplace.

With schools dropping vocational subjects to focus on academic qualifications, FE colleges have an unprecedented opportunity to fill the gap. In a tough financial climate, every college should capitalise on their strong links with employers and get students into the workplace wherever possible.

Most schools could never offer the many vocational options available at colleges – which often come with industry-standard facilities and expert tutors. College recruitment needs to be about promoting a route to a fulfilling career.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman didn’t make herself popular when she said this at the Association of Colleges conference this week, and AoC chief executive David Hughes made a valid retort that universities seem to ignore the ratio of course places to employment prospects. The purpose of education is an important debate – is it valuable in itself or only as a route to a career? –  but the larger point is that informed choice for students is vital.

Curriculums should be developed in partnership with employers – a luxury unavailable to schools and something many universities feel they don’t need to do.

In reality, many employers have never visited an FE college and are unlikely to knock at the door of an unfamiliar environment, asking to get involved. We employers moan about the lack of skills, but rarely do we proactively approach colleges and work with them to fix the situation.

I would urge colleges to invite local businesses in and tell them clearly how they can support you and inspire your students. It’s a win-win situation. Employers will quickly see the advantages of driving curriculum development and helping to nurture young talent.

I regularly see young people leaving school or university who have had no guidance about careers throughout their entire educational journey. This is a disaster.

Students progressing from college into higher education or work may well have a clearer idea where their careers are heading and a more specialist set of skills – a real asset in securing fulfilling employment.

Colleges are and should be the first choice for many learners. They should be better valued and more widely recognised for their ability to help address the skills crisis facing our economy.