'The government must invest in the FE workforce'

If colleges are to flourish as centres of community skills development, the government must invest in them

Olly Newton

Colleges: 'The government must invest in the FE workforce'

Edge’s recent research on skills shortages across the UK has turned up some scary statistics. The government’s Employer Skills Survey revealed 226,000 skills shortage vacancies in 2017 – that’s getting on for a quarter of a million jobs that can’t be filled because employers aren’t able to find the skills they need. 

That’s an economic and social tragedy, and that was before the massive economic shock caused by the impact of coronavirus. 

Colleges have an amazingly rich heritage in developing, both in young people and adults, the skills they need to enter and thrive in the ever-changing labour market. But, as Frank McCloughlin makes clear in Edge’s new report, Our Plan for FE, "Colleges across the UK are facing an identity crisis… we need to answer the question of what should we put in the front of the shop window so that everyone in the community can articulate a clear and positive vision of what their local college does". 


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The workforce of the future

The impact of Brexit, of the fourth industrial revolution and now of coronavirus means that we are at a major crossroads for the economy. It has never been more important for us to effectively prepare the workforce of the future. The whole FE sector has a vital role to play in that mission. 

As Paul Grainger, co-Director of UCL’s Centre for post-14 education and work, recognises: “central to the nature of FE has always been its close links with both local companies and the civic community.” 

Those close links that Paul identifies give the FE sector a unique position and opportunity – to be at the forefront of growing skills and developing particularly small and medium-sized enterprises in communities across the country. Perhaps that role as leaders of technician training and the business development partner of choice for SMEs is what could go at the front of Frank’s shop window. 

The report reveals some amazing examples of colleges already putting this into practice. At South East Regional College in Northern Ireland, for instance, students work on real-life problems brought by local businesses, providing solutions to those firms whilst developing and showcasing the skills they will need for work. The college has quickly become the skills and business development partner of choice in their area.

If colleges are going to make a success of developing skills in others, they need to be able to access the skills they need in their own workforce. With FE institutions unable to pay anything like what an individual would earn in many growth industries, it’s hardly surprising that 42 per cent of tutors are considering leaving the sector in the next 12 months.

A firm message for the government

So Edge’s report also contains a firm message for the government. The FE sector needs a new deal based on its own renewed sense of vision and purpose, which includes sufficient funding to address the current recruitment and retention crisis. We think an independent panel on FE pay, benchmarking against relevant sectors of the economy, could help to establish transparency, fairness and impartiality. 

By investing properly in the FE workforce over the coming years, we can support colleges to become the powerhouses of skills training, for young people and adults that we will need in every community to weather the economic challenges that we are facing. 

Olly Newton is executive director at the Edge Foundation. 

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