How FE can turn the recruitment crisis into an opportunity

FE faces the same workforce pressures as the sectors that rely on it for their talent pipelines but it can turn that to its advantage, explains Dean Renphrey

FE faces the same workforce pressures as the sectors that rely on it for their talent pipelines but it can turn that to its advantage, explains Dean Renphrey

2 May 2023, 5:00

In the midst of the many challenges facing further education, there is an opportunity for the sector to seize some control within the broader education landscape. Modernising its recruitment and retention strategy could see the sector take its rightful place in local and national workforce planning.

We hear daily of skills gaps in engineering, computing, childcare, hospitality, management and, of course, teaching. These gaps are keenly felt across the country and all eyes are increasingly on FE to produce tomorrow’s workforce in these areas specifically. The tension, less obvious to those outside our sector, is that those skills gaps translate directly to the front of the classroom too. And therein lies the problem: How can the sector take this opportunity if it lacks the staff to grasp it?

Rigorous workforce planning is crucial. The labour market is complex and jobseeker expectations have shifted substantially in a short space of time. Adapting to this shift could hold the key for colleges to broaden their provision without sacrificing quality.

Greater flexibility

One thing FE can offer that other educational institutions can’t is flexibility. Historically, part-time positions have been seen as precarious by both employers and employees. Colleges keen to tie down lecturers with sought-after skillsets and lecturers looking for the security of a full-time position have long been the norm.

However, with so many colleges speaking highly of their staff with industry experience, now is the time to lean in. FE is well-placed to embrace blended careers and flexible working. Research shows the upcoming workforce is more values-driven and socially conscious than previous generations and desires greater autonomy over their working week. A week split between working in industry and imparting expertise can be good for all involved; Students receive expert teaching, colleges recruit lecturers to address the skills gap and staff can enjoy the flexibility of true dual-professionalism.

Better intelligence

If government is setting the questions and FE has the answers, then labour market intelligence has to be the source material – the data behind the decision-making.

Many colleges have five-year strategic plans, but labour markets are shifting at an unprecedented rate and funding streams are unpredictable. An 18-month outlook, with local employment data as your north star, will help with curriculum forecasts and, in turn, highlight any potential gaps in staffing.

If there are demographic changes, an uptick in SMEs or new flagship businesses in town, we must be ready to respond, to determine whether we have a suitable talent pipeline and the time to upskill staff as required. With resignation deadlines approaching, many are planning for September 2023. How many, I wonder, are planning with equal rigor for September 2024?

External Collaboration

Drawing on labour market intelligence, colleges can determine if it’s in their interest to grow a provision depending on local demand from students and employers for a specific skillset.

As you look to grow key provisions, it can be difficult to secure the depth of knowledge needed to develop curriculum, especially as level 3 and 4 programmes increasingly include modules where highly specific knowledge is required.

Strategic partnerships between colleges and groups could go beyond sharing best practice towards sharing key staff. This may not always be an entirely comfortable arrangement, but adults returning to education can make student numbers less predictable and a visiting lecturer or expert on-call approach might be a more viable guarantor of quality in the short term.

Internal Communication

The final elements of a fit-for-purpose recruitment and retention strategy for the new world of employment are to ensure HR teams grasp the college’s curriculum plan, and that technology is being used optimally to secure the right candidates.

It is by working together towards a medium-term staffing plan across all parts of a college (including HR, curriculum and business management) that FE can create the most thorough, holistic and effective recruitment strategies.  

More of the same isn’t going to solve a shortage of lecturers in our sector and private sector pay growth is likely to continue to outstrip education in the immediate future, especially in those sectors relying on shortage skills.

But FE has one advantage: the ingenuity and bandwidth to respond better than other areas of education, if only it seizes the opportunity.

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