The further education sector has a big role to play in the UK’s economic recovery, as Walsall College Principal and Chief Executive, Jatinder Sharma OBE outlines here.
As employers and businesses count the cost of COVID-19 and contemplate the long-term economic effects of 2020, it is easy to feel pessimistic. Economic uncertainty, rising unemployment, changes in public spending, tax increases to cover the cost of Coronavirus… Not to mention Brexit and the unknowns we still face after January 1st.
Walsall – already an area of economic and social deprivation, with a low skills and low income economy – will be hit especially hard by job losses in retail and hospitality. Furthermore, that unemployment is likely to be exacerbated by skills gaps in areas that are in demand locally, such as healthcare, technology and digital engineering.
With so little clarity, and confidence in our leaders at a low ebb, it can be easy to dismiss the Prime Minister’s Build Back Better agenda as hyperbole and spin. Realistically, very few businesses are facing the future with energy and enthusiasm as this difficult year draws to a close.
However, at Walsall College, we do feel optimistic about the opportunities the PM’s recovery agenda represents, and we welcome the recognition of the role Further Education can play in it.
Opportunity and optimism
In September, Boris Johnson announced his new Lifetime Skills Guarantee, designed to bridge the skills gap faced by business, stating:
‘This government will offer a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain– at any stage in their lives – and enable us not just to come through this crisis, but to come back stronger, and build back better. We seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates and the truth is we’re not giving anywhere near enough of the right kind of training or support to people who don’t want to go to university, and so we’re depriving them of the chance to find their vocation and develop a fulfilling, well-paid career.’
Delivering this speech at Exeter College, the Prime Minister acknowledged that to recover from the financial impact of Coronavirus, ‘we need to invest in skills and we need to invest in FE’, pledging £1.5b to the sector.
So why is this so important right now?
Because plugging the skills gap cost UK employers £4.4 billion in 2019, rising to £6.6 billion in 2020, and 56% of employers complain of skills shortages.* So, as Coronavirus accelerates changes and challenges in the economy, reskilling and upskilling the regional workforce is a top priority at Number 10.
In light of the ongoing crisis, there has never been a time when FE colleges have been more critical to the success and prosperity of the local and national economy.
We are currently consulting on our new corporate strategy for the next three years, and I want to assure businesses, the public and the private sector, that Walsall College intends to be at the forefront of this recovery and employment agenda.
So, what more will we be doing to support economic growth and employment in light of Coronavirus, Brexit and job losses?
Upskilling workers of every age and stage
For anyone unfamiliar with Walsall College, we offer hundreds courses on a full-time and part-time basis (day and evening), online, in the classroom and in the workplace.
This provides Walsall and the surrounding areas with a complete education solution: from no or low educational attainment, through GCSEs, BTECs, T Levels and apprenticeships, up to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
I’m proud to say we’re one of the West Midlands’ largest FE colleges, with 4,000 14-19 year-old students, 5,000 adult learners, 1,500 apprentices and over 200 HE students.
Regardless of their age or career stage, we’re committed to providing learners with the skills they need to progress and prosper in their chosen employment, whether that is functional skills in maths and English, or high-level professional skills in specialist sectors.
By helping people to retrain in in-demand employment skills, we will help boost the region’s productivity and competitiveness, leading to improved prospects for both individuals and business.
Aligning learning to local skill priorities
We already work with key local partners – including employers such as the NHS, Balfour Beatty VINCI, Bell Group, Taylor Wimpey, Cisco and Barhale – to ensure our curriculum is effectively aligned to industry and economic needs.
Our high-quality courses are shaped to deliver the skills those businesses need to succeed and include opportunities for learners to prepare effectively for employment, such as industrial placements, work experience and employer-informed projects.
As a result, almost 90% of our curriculum is aligned with local skill priorities, providing a pipeline of talent to employers in our locality, including our expanded provision in health and life sciences, technology and digital engineering.
Not only that, but 92% of our learners go on to positive destinations in employment or Higher Education.
To help employers and individuals unlock their full potential post-COVID, we plan to strengthen and expand these partnerships.
We will guarantee an employer and business connection in every curriculum area, to endorse and enhance our provision, and provide a clear line of sight to employment opportunities for learners. All learners will also have access to employer masterclasses and meaningful interactions with businesses linked to their training.
This benefits learners and employers by aligning skills development with real-world application, providing local business with the opportunity to shape our curriculum – and our graduates – with the workplace in mind.
As we seek to rebuild the local economy, we will focus on priority sectors which have the highest potential for positive impact in the region. These include construction and building technologies, automotive and advanced manufacturing, business and professional services, and digital skills.
Making in-work learning more accessible for adults
Another priority is to help people learn throughout their lives, in line with the Lifelong Learning Guarantee and Bounce Back Better agenda.
Whilst we already have more learners over the age of 19 than under it, we know many adult learners face barriers to retraining and upskilling. Whether that is finding training that can fit around their other commitments, such as work or parenting, or accessing high quality education close to home.
So we are committed to improving access in the post-COVID landscape by providing a wide range of flexible courses, through different modes of delivery.
One positive from Coronavirus has been the acceleration of digital transformation in education, with many colleges and universities forced to find ways to provide learning online. We will seek to build on this and harness the opportunity to do things differently for people who aren’t attracted to in-person learning, to unlock previously untapped talent and widen participation.
We know that many members of the community have been disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus lockdown, including young people and those in low income groups. So we will redouble our efforts to offer opportunities for these members of our community.
Equipping the workforce with digital skills for the future
We believe that digital skills are the golden thread connecting all industries. Individuals and employers simply can’t succeed in the modern world without them. So digital skills – along with English and maths – will be embedded into every part of our curriculum.
We aim to be renowned for our expertise in the digital sector by giving students real career pathways into professions such as cyber security, robotics, computer sciences, artificial intelligence and big data, supported by a new digital demonstration facility serving the West Midlands.
Passion, pride and partnership
As you can tell, I’m passionate about the role skills and training can play in the development of the West Midlands economy and the ongoing regeneration of Walsall and the Black Country.
My interest in local business is reflected in my membership of the Black Country LEP, Walsall Economic Board, Walsall Proud Partnership and my current application to join the board of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Furthermore, as a board member of the national Association of Colleges and one of seven FE representatives that provides strategic advice to Government, I’m proud to champion the needs of regional economies, employers and communities on the national stage.
There will undoubtedly be many challenges ahead but with the College’s proven success producing high-calibre job-ready graduates – and our continued determination, hard work and expertise – I have every confidence that we can and will Build Back Better together.
* Business Barometer 2020 launches: Key skills gaps remain as businesses plan for recovery | Business at The Open University
If you are a local employer and would like to discuss opportunities for partnership with the College, please contact 01922 657 000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org