Colleges have to put themselves at heart of the economy

The coronavirus pandemic will fundamentally change the face of UK - and, indeed, international - industry, writes Mark Silverman

Mark Silverman

Colleges need to put themselves at the heart of the economy

It would have been impossible to predict just how dramatic 2020 would be – with an unexpected pandemic affecting every corner of the globe.

An event of this magnitude will not only affect the economy in the short term, but fundamentally change the face of UK (and indeed international) industry going forward. This is a huge tragedy for the businesses struggling to survive, many of which will never recover – but as a nation we must put focus and energy into identifying new growth sectors, which offer exciting career opportunities for the next generation.

Further education colleges are fundamental to this shift and have a huge part to play over the next few years. Our sector is used to dealing with frequent changes in policy and flexing to meet the needs of its communities and local economies – and never before has this been so important.

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Working directly with employers is crucial for colleges, enabling educators to understand the skills needs in their local areas and tailoring provision accordingly. Many new growth industries, including green technologies, digital construction, logistics and health technology are not generally understood by tutors or parents – meaning that young people are unlikely to consider these as potential career options. But the fact is, industries like these are the future of youth employment and indeed, essential for the rebuilding of our damaged economy, which means colleges must focus on these new, exciting areas.

The aim of the Career Colleges Trust is to support students into great careers. To do this, we focus on identifying growth areas and helping FE colleges to create high-quality educational pathways in these sectors, working in partnership with employers. There has been a huge shift in the past five years as skills demand has changed and the need to innovate has become increasingly important.

One industry experiencing exponential growth, catalysed by the pandemic, is the logistics sector. Moving goods around via air, road and sea is huge business and the need for skilled employees is set to increase dramatically. In fact, the industry already employs 2 million people, with 50 per cent of logistics businesses expecting skills shortages to further increase over the coming years.

Suffering from a bit of an image problem, logistics is rarely seen as the exciting sector it is. However, job roles vary enormously, with many incorporating global opportunities and fast progression pathways. With this in mind, we have just launched a network of Logistics Career Colleges around the UK, supported by an international partnership with specialist logistics college STC, based in Rotterdam.

Seven FE colleges – Hugh Baird, West Suffolk, South Essex, West Herts, City of Bristol, Eastleigh and Coleg Gwent – have joined the network, pioneering a newly developed qualification in logistics and international supply chain management. The courses will launch next year, offering collaborative e-learning opportunities and work experience placements for students, together with specialist teaching from STC. Not only will this offer unique work-focused opportunities for students, but also provide an important industry with a pipeline of skills to support its future growth.

This model of employer-led education, focusing on new sectors offering lots of career opportunities, is key to the nation’s post-Covid economic recovery. Overhauling a college’s curriculum is no easy task, particularly when existing provision is popular and courses are easily filled. Yet as educators, we have a responsibility to support students beyond college and help them to make informed decisions about their next steps. Many schools are not able to look beyond the linear option of A levels and university – which, in the current financial climate, is likely to become increasingly inaccessible to many people.

FE colleges are traditionally brilliant innovators and are absolutely the key to the important skills and education shift we need to see. The government recognises this, with its recent announcement to put colleges at the heart of the country’s plans for reskilling and rebuilding the economy. As a sector, we need to embrace this, accepting the realities of a new industrial landscape and welcoming the new opportunities this will bring for so many young people.

Mark Silverman is joint CEO at the Career Colleges Trust

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