When Exeter College started offering specialist training to the staff of the Flybe airline in 2008, no one realised just how much the relationship would grow.
Six years later, the college and the low-cost carrier have developed a unique partnership. Together they offer two bespoke courses, one in aircraft engineering and the other in travel and tourism, which includes a cabin crew qualification.
As well as using the college's purpose-built facilities, students on the courses spend part of their time at the Flybe Training Academy, based at nearby Exeter International Airport, using the same tools and equipment as the airline's employees.
And, uniquely, the engineering students are even given access to the airline's hangar, where they can hone their skills by helping to repair active aircraft in the Flybe fleet. The four-year course is designed to lead directly to employment and so far every graduate has gained a job in the airline industry.
Ian Fitzpatrick, Exeter College's assistant principal and its former head of engineering, aerospace and automotive studies, says that Flybe originally approached the college to help with staff courses, including business improvement and leadership and management training.
"From that initial relationship, they came to us and said they had identified a need to train and recruit new engineers," he says. "It's a sector that has an ageing workforce and they wanted to develop a succession-planning process to keep their business sustainable. Exeter is their main maintenance facility in the UK, but they found that a lot of the people applying for jobs were university graduates who had a lot of knowledge but little hands-on experience. We worked with them to design and develop a bespoke programme to help meet their needs."
The four-year programme includes a BTEC diploma in aircraft engineering, a foundation degree in aircraft engineering (delivered in partnership with Kingston University) and the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) licence to work on aircraft.
Applicants must have at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English, maths and a science subject, but the college is not necessarily looking for those with the highest marks.
Chris Lewis, the institution's aerospace training manager, says: "What we really want are students with a passion for aviation. A four-year course can be a long slog for a lot of students and, without that passion, it could be difficult.
"All of our instructors are industry-trained, having worked in either the military or the civilian airline industry. They don't just teach knowledge but bring real-life experience."
In their first year, students learn basic engineering skills, with the practical element of the programme delivered at the Flybe academy. They complete their BTEC in the second year and then start the EASA programme. In the third year, they move on to the foundation degree and spend a term in the hangars. They also have another two terms in the hangars in the fourth year to complete their foundation degree and gain their EASA licence.
Despite all these qualifications, the graduates will still have to complete a further 18 months of on-site practical training before they can gain their full licence.
Four cohorts, each of about 20 students, have completed the course so far. Although there's no guarantee of a job, 100 per cent are now employed in the industry, either with Flybe or other airlines including British Airways, Virgin and Monarch.
Paul Timms, a training instructor at the Flybe academy, is full of praise for the course and the students who pass through his doors. "In the past, there has been a disconnect between the academic courses and industry," he says. "Ten years ago, there was a shortage of engineers and people were coming out of university with no practical experience to get into the industry. This has sorted that out. The balance is a lot better."
Nine to five
The students, too, are keen to talk about their positive experiences. Hayden Breeds, currently in his third year, says he always had a passion for the industry and seeing friends gain jobs after completing the course encouraged him to apply.
"No other course can offer the same on-the-job training as this one; you are in that environment almost straight away," he adds. "You are not guaranteed a job, but the training and experience you get here certainly puts you ahead of other candidates."
His coursemate Jon Webber agrees: "You have uniforms and work nine to five, so it feels more like a job, as opposed to a course. Working in the hangar, you get a real appreciation for how things work rather than just looking at a book.
"The course feels more valuable because you know it has a purpose. I have no worries about finding a job; I know I'm going to step straight into a role because of the experience I've gained."
The success of the engineering course led Flybe and Exeter College to develop a BTEC travel and tourism course that includes a City amp; Guilds cabin crew qualification.
Lianne Currah, the cabin crew programme leader, explains that students spend one day a week in their first year and two in their second training in the Flybe academy. While there, they wear the Flybe uniform and use the same training facilities and equipment as the airline's own recruits, including working in the full-size mock-up aircraft and a smoke-filled cabin simulator. "It gives them a real insight into the equipment that airlines use," she says.
The course is in demand: in the past three years, student numbers have increased significantly, growing from one group of 20 to three groups. "It doesn't guarantee them a job interview but it does give them an edge," Currah says. "A high percentage have got jobs in the industry, not just with Flybe but also Thomas Cook, British Airways, EasyJet and Thomson."
Michelle Walsh, opportunities and development manager at Exeter College, says that both courses are growing in reputation and starting to attract interest from across the UK. She says the college has plans for further activities with Flybe, including developing more training courses for the airline's staff and possibly even a joint pilot training programme. She is confident that the relationship will continue to grow.
"It's early days for a lot of these things, but we can only see it going one way. Flybe knows we have the expertise in education to support their training and they like having our students at the academy."