Editor's comment

Ministers cannot say the warning this week of a staff recruitment crisis in colleges comes as a surprise. The Government itself rang the alarm bells almost three years ago.

A significant factor - poor pay and conditions - was clearly identified in an independent report from the Institute of Employment Studies, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills in 2003.

Now, the usual solution to a problem we have failed to tackle is being suggested: trawl for talent overseas. David Hunter, chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK - the organisation responsible for retraining the FE workforce - told the House of Commons select committee on education: "We may have to look outside the European community for people to come in."

Schools have already been down this road. Before the Government took action to tackle low teacher pay and poor morale, schools, recruitment agencies and local education authorities were trawling offshore as far as Australia for talent. The crisis peaked in 2002 when a joint TESSecondary Heads Association survey revealed end-of-term unfilled teacher vacancies in secondary schools of almost 4,000.

However, overseas recruitment proved anything but cheap - nor was it the solution. Talented teachers from the antipodes might like a salaried job with time to swan around the Motherland. But they were damned if they would stomach the low pay for any length of time, nor put in the long hours.

The NHS has had the worst crisis. With appalling pay rates for nurses, managers have controversially drawn from depleted pools of talent in the impoverished Third World.

There are other measures ministers could take - as they did in schools - to improve pay in colleges. Mr Hunter suggests an advertising campaign aimed at raising the status of college teaching. People from industry could be encouraged to take-up teaching part-time. But what is there to attract them?

Long-term population trends point to recruitment problems in most occupations. Overseas recruitment - notably within the EU - is already seen as a partial solution. Hence, anecdotes in the tabloid press of skilled Polish plumbers taking British jobs.

The repeated message from ministers is that we need a high-skill, high-wage economy in order to compete in the global market. They are making big strides on skills. But, on pay in colleges, there is still a huge way to go. Without action to promote FE as a career of choice, with salaries to fit the task, a staff crisis is unavoidable.

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