Employers need to go back to school on college education

The transformation of the further education sector over the past 10 years has been dramatic, not only because so many colleges have been modernised or rebuilt, but in the way in which they have emerged as the first port of call for businesses looking to update the skills of their staff.

More recently, the Leitch Review on the UK’s skills deficit has provided a stimulus for colleges to become even more business-facing, supported by a raft of government initiatives designed to encourage and subsidise employers that want to upskill their workforce. This has resulted in changes to college staffing policy to include a much higher percentage with recent commercial experience, as well as more flexible approaches that have led to bespoke training packages for some of our country’s leading employers. BAE Systems, Bentley, United Biscuits and Flybe are just a few of the recognisable names currently working in partnership with their local colleges.

Old skool, new skool

There is still a long way to go before all employers are convinced that colleges can offer them solutions to training and skills problems: only 26% use their local college regularly, despite a high satisfaction rating from those that do.

It takes time for the old image of the technical college to finally fade away and be replaced by the picture of the new-look college prepared to offer support pretty much any time and anywhere. Most colleges these days, for example, will deliver courses on-site, as well as in the college itself, and many are able to fit in with shift patterns or irregular working.

Gift of knowledge

The point of training, of course, is not really the joy of learning for its own sake, but its impact on the bottom line – something that tends to be forgotten at times of economic crisis.

Arguably, this is the very time when investment in training should be increased. In a recession, when downsizing may be necessary, it is even more important that the employees who remain in the workforce have the necessary skills to fill the gaps left by those who have gone.

Colleges also offer excellent value for money at such times, not least as a result of significant government subsidies.

For those organisations that are unsure about what they need, training needs analysis is available from the business divisions of most colleges, followed up by a tailor-made programme that maximises the benefits that various government schemes have to offer.

Bureaucracy has also been reduced. The often-heard complaint that there is too much paperwork involved in accessing such provision is not without some historical basis – but times are changing. The government is working very closely with the college sector to remove the barriers that may be preventing companies from accessing the training they need.

And it’s not just courses that are on offer for organisations. Many colleges offer one-to-one coaching and mentoring for newly appointed managers – not only in the direct aspects of their job, but also in the marginal activities, such as speech-making, which often come with more senior positions.

Two-way relationships

The best college/business relationships are those that have built up over time and are not just brought about by a financial crisis or a particular problem. Most businesses and colleges are in their communities for the long term and there are advantages in working together regularly to understand each other better.

But it is not only one-way traffic: firms can offer colleges a lot, too – from experienced staff to sit on governing bodies, ensuring that what is being offered is really what the locality needs, to work experience for students, staff exchanges, talks and visits.

Today, colleges are a core community resource. In addition to their education and training function, they contain libraries, often holding technical journals, computer software and hardware meeting rooms and sports and leisure facilities. So if your image of your local college is a place where lower-level technical skills are taught to young people, think again. Better still, call in and see for yourself how they have changed.

David Collins, president, Association of Colleges

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