What employers really want from college partnerships

Covid’s disruption to college-employer partnerships is an opportunity to reset expectations and deliver sustainably, writes Alex Dimsdale

Covid’s disruption to college-employer partnerships is an opportunity to reset expectations and deliver sustainably, writes Alex Dimsdale

20 Jan 2023, 5:00

I’m proud to have been conferred this week as a fellow of London South East Colleges for my work in supporting their students into careers. As an HR professional within international hospitality, I am seeing first-hand the challenges employers everywhere face with recruitment, and I am seeing them across every area of our business. After the pandemic decimated our industry, we are now beginning to rebuild, economically and culturally, and to do this we need people joining us who have passion as well as the right skills and knowledge.  

This is no easy task, particularly with Brexit severely compounding post-pandemic recruitment issues. But attracting staff into hospitality has always been challenging. With a long-standing perception of low pay and unsociable hours, the sector is often wrongly viewed as less aspirational, career-wise, than other industries.  

The reality is that our business can offer employees fantastic progression, travel and training opportunities in a wide range of specialisms. To communicate this to young people, and secure a pipeline of skills, engagement with FE providers has never been so important to us. 

Unfortunately, after such a long and unprecedented closure period, relationships may have been lost just when re-opening the channels of communication with colleges has become vital. There are several reasons for that, such as key contacts moving on both sides. The first lesson towards a more sustainable engagement is therefore to ensure such relationships are nurtured by the whole organisation (college and business), rather than just one committed individual.

When we began working with London South East Colleges pre-pandemic, a particularly successful initiative was the ‘student takeover’. This saw 20 students spend two weeks at our County Hall property, rotating around departments and getting direct experience of working in a real-life hotel environment.

The real prize is securing skills pipelines for months and years ahead

Pleasingly, the programme resulted in permanent appointments. But while short-term gain in terms of instant recruitment is a huge positive, the real prize is securing skills pipelines for the months and years ahead and achieving that is about nurturing relationships. So it was all the more pleasing for us that every student gained meaningful experience, and crucial that it helped change their perceptions of what working in our industry is really like.

When it comes to fostering that sustained and meaningful organisational relationship, it’s equally important that the people teaching the students who come to us are also aware of the real-life, day-to-day running of the business and the breadth of career opportunities on offer. While most FE tutors are industry professionals, they may not have worked in the setting for some years, and hospitality – like so many other sectors – is constantly changing in response to technology and other trends. 

We addressed this by inviting tutors take part in our staff orientation and spend a week with us. The experience gave tutors a new perception to take back to the classroom, enabling them to excite and inspire their students ahead of their period with us and to make sense of their experience afterwards. 

The key, with staff and students alike, is to identify enthusiastic and passionate people and to give them the dedicated time they need. When it comes to students, our experience teaches us that a shorter period of intensive, compressed work experience over a 2- to 3-week period is more useful than one day a week over a more protracted placement.

Dedicated and planned work placements are such a vital part of a curriculum, helping students to identify the opportunities open to them and the sorts of skills they need. Sadly, our hotels regularly get requests from schools for work experience placements but rarely from colleges.

In the hope of changing that, it’s important to note that the hospitality sector isn’t just looking for young people interested in careers in hospitality. This makes for a neat partition of the curriculum, but the reality is that we need to fill roles in specialties from HR, marketing and business administration through to maintenance engineering and events management. 

The same will be true of other sectors, and the silver lining in these difficult times may be that meeting the challenges we all face gives rise to new and more sustained relationships between employers and colleges.

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