Colleges’ local solutions to global workforce problems

A roundtable of colleges from the US, Canada and the UK revealed innovative local solutions to surprising common challenges, writes Ian Pretty

A roundtable of colleges from the US, Canada and the UK revealed innovative local solutions to surprising common challenges, writes Ian Pretty

9 Jan 2023, 5:00

In the autumn, Collab Group held a roundtable discussion with our partners, the Global Community College Leadership Network. Nearly 20 colleges from the United States, Canada and the UK were represented. The topic was skilling the workforce, and our intention was to facilitate an open exchange of views and experiences. What was striking was how consistent some of the themes were across different contexts.

Responding to labour markets

All participants pointed out the tight nature of labour markets in their respective jurisdictions and the impact this had on their provision.

In Canada there are more than 1 million vacancies, with a population of 38 million. By comparison, the UK also has more than  1 million vacancies, but with a much larger population of 67 million. Similarly in New Mexico, there is a low participation rate as well as low unemployment. The result is that employers are struggling to recruit and end up poaching staff from each other.

But this is also where colleges can provide a solution with work-based learning, through apprenticeships. Not only can learners continue (or return to) education, but they can also continue being a part of the labour force and meeting skills needs. Indeed, engaging in education at the same time means their potential earnings are likely to rise over the long term too. This is a win-win-win situation as there are benefits for employers, employees/students as well as the wider economy through improvements in skills and therefore productivity.

And this is exactly what our participants said they were doing, with our Canadian and American attendees targeting a 100 per cent participation rate in such programmes for their students.

Engaging with employers

Second, our participants shared the myriad ways in which they engaged with their employers.

South Yorkshire, where The Sheffield College operates, has a large SME population, which are a tougher nut to crack for apprenticeships. The college has taken what it calls a “sectoral approach”, whereby businesses from the same sector will come into the college to speak about their skills needs, and the college may be able to offer more bespoke provision.

New Mexico provides an interesting contrast, as the employer landscape there is predominantly public sector – schools, hospitals, national research laboratories and government agencies. This means Central New Mexico Community College’s attention is more attuned to government-funded schemes, such as a federal government initiative to subsidise the wages of students who undertake internships in certain sectors.

This comes with its own challenges, as government funding streams are rarely permanent. But the common thread is the importance of sustaining links with employers who become advocates for effective educational schemes.

Innovative provision

Third, participants spoke about the more innovative aspects of their activities. Innovation could involve tweaking existing provision to better fit employer needs or engaging in new kinds of activity altogether.

In Southern Alberta, for instance, a recent review of apprenticeships concluded with recommendations for the formal recognition of apprenticeships, updating standards and laws to keep pace with economic change, and achieving parity of esteem with academic routes. These will no doubt sound familiar on this side of the pond.

Derby College is currently developing a programme with a locally-based global engineering company in which the college teaches students on the business’s own premises – an excellent opportunity for staff as well as students. Teachers will be immersed in cutting-edge facilities and equipment and students will become high-skilled, job-ready candidates upon graduation. The company benefits too, thereby potentially driving broader employer engagement with the college.

Some pertinent questions were left open at the end of our discussion, which all colleges were interested in finding answers to. Among these, how do we navigate a situation whereby employers ask colleges for help but are unable to articulate their own skills needs? And how do we help employers engage with and attract our students, especially in sectors not traditionally seen as appealing?

Thankfully, this roundtable was the first in a series. We are sure to return to these issues and more, and look forward to sharing the insights gained.

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