Twelve months ago a “regional skills concordat” was set up so that 11 colleges would work with industry to identify current and future skills gaps.

Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow and chair of the education select committee, launched the collaboration in April 2019 claiming the “vital and exciting development will provide a ladder of opportunity for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and improve the prestige of skills development”.

The UK Innovation Corridor – a network of science and technology companies, academics, start-ups, finance and law firms from London to Cambridge – set up the project and helped produce a “showcase” of FE college-led employer engagement and skills activity along the region.

Former college principal and chair of the UK Innovation Corridor, Ann Limb, praised the collective efforts as “phenomenal”. The final showcase was due to be presented in parliament but had to move online owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

FE Week joined the webcasted event on Wednesday, during which ten of the participating colleges answered one of three questions about the benefits of developing partnerships with businesses and potential future changes to engagement with employers.

Here is how the showcase went…

Q1: How has your employer engagement most benefited the college, your learners, employer partners and the wider community?

Hertford Regional College

Katrina Dougherty, vice principal of enterprise and innovation, said the college operates a destination curriculum model, which “supports learners to see their current studies as a passport to their future careers and not just the achievement of a qualification in its own right”. She focused on the provider’s 15-year relationship with Winchmore Brickwork – its team visits at least once a month to actively engage in programme delivery and typically uses the partnership to recruit their apprentices each year. “Working with Winchmore has enabled us to provide learners with access to real-time, hands-on experience,” she added.

Peterborough Regional College

Marie Peene, operations director of apprenticeships, provided the example of the development of the level 3 food and drink engineering maintenance apprenticeship standard. Prior to delivery, the college engaged with employers and the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink to shape the curriculum. Forums, meetings and feedback informed the contextualisation of the programme as well as the layout and equipment that should be used in the centre. Further engagement allows staff at the college to ensure they have up-to-date expertise.

Q2: Which employers has your college engaged with?

Capital City College Group

Barry Connolly strategic advisor for engineering development at Conel

Barry Connelly, strategic advisor for engineering development at Conel (part of CCCG), discussed the gratitude of Transport for London rail and of global real estate firm CBRE for the development of apprentices’ engineering skills and benefits to their businesses. He added the college’s facilities put it in a “strong position to bring out further growth” and that increased employer partnerships would create new apprenticeship opportunities to help “young people within the local community and the UK Innovation Corridor become the next generation of qualified engineers”.

Waltham Forest College

Senior business adviser Nelson Dean spoke about the development of the college’s partnership with One Housing Group. It started with a request to help recruit one apprentice and has now grown into a bigger programme with opportunities for industry work placements. Dean said Waltham Forest College also has wider discussions with the housing association’s supply chain and host networking events to explore the challenges of the industry and how the college can support the upskilling of staff or provision of candidates for jobs.

Ada, the National College for Digital Skills

Principal Stuart Noss elaborated on Ada’s partnership with software company Salesforce. It provides “significant” numbers of mentors every year and sponsors events such as a weeklong take-over of the college to co-deliver a client brief training project, giving students “the opportunity to experience what the real world will be like”. The firm has also helped design the curriculum, is part of the induction programme and provides grants to invest in welfare. Noss concluded the partnership is “hugely beneficial for both parties”.

Stansted Airport College, part of Harlow College 

Deputy principal Will Allanson explained that the partnership came about due to the college’s location, the fact Stansted Airport was the largest single employment site in the East of England and that there had been no access to vocational education within the district. He said the curriculum had been designed to prepare people to go into employment at the airport. “We join the dots up with young people between where they are and where they need to get to,” Allanson continued, citing employers coming in to work alongside learners and tutors at the college as well as opportunities for work placements.

Q3: How do you see your employer engagement changing in the coming one to five years? What is driving this change?

Cambridge Regional College

Deputy principal of Cambridge Regional College Michelle Dowse

In the most popular quote of the seminar, deputy principal Michelle Dowse passed on the perspective that “resilient companies don’t bounce back, they bounce forward”. She said that many employers in the Innovation Corridor have told her they will embrace the technological changes that many of them have accelerated during lockdown and “they’ll require even more support from us to help them make those changes”. She predicts this may take the form of more webinars, virtual career support and interviews, as well as greater flexibility in delivery models. 

Capel Manor College

Key issues for principal Malcolm Goodwin included climate change and food security, which he said had been highlighted with the pressures on the supply chain during Covid-19. For the specialist environmental and land-based college the most effective way to develop multi-employer collaboration has been hosting large fairs. “Looking at the three- to five-year picture, I think I can see the alumni playing a much more significant role,” he concluded.

New City College

Steve Lee, the deputy group director for apprenticeships and business development, said the college has been maintaining engagement with employers and stakeholders during the pandemic and “keeping that momentum going where we can”. It is currently in the process of opening a new campus and modernising the others with hopes to “meet the needs of employers and to future-proof education where we can”. Input received so far on equipment and technology has been utilised to shape what the campus should look like.

North Hertfordshire College

Adam Barnes, head of employer engagement, outlined how the college’s separate brand for apprenticeship provision, Hart Learning & Development, was set up to look at how it could “expand on a more national basis”. By cutting the number of courses on offer, it was able to create “a much more tailored programme”. He sees the provision of pre-apprenticeship training to help clients with recruitment as an area for future growth. According to Barnes, this means the provider “can design things that are expressly related to the job roles that people go into”.


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