How to foster strong relationships with employers

Employer relationships are crucial - but what is needed to get those established?

Employer engagement is crucial in FE, writes Rachel May from the Career Colleges Trust

With 20 years’ experience of working in the learning and skills sector to promote and support employer engagement, I have seen at first hand just how valuable these partnerships can be. And, in the current context of widening skills gaps across many industries, never has there been a more important time for employers and colleges to collaborate effectively.

A strong employer-college relationship will help futureproof the skills required by businesses, as well as boosting aspiration among young people and promoting the many different roles available in a range of industries.

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Skills and behaviours

As a college, you will ensure that your students are equipped with the skills and behaviours they need to succeed in their chosen career. And, as an employer, you will be securing that all-important pipeline of skills that your business needs to grow and develop.

But the fact is that it is not always easy to create effective employer-college partnerships and finding the right support to cultivate these relationships can be a challenge. In my new role, my priority will be on supporting our Career Colleges as well as the employers that choose to get involved.

Identifying the right partner/s to work with is crucial to the long-term success of any partnership. A good fit in terms of shared ethos and common goals is very useful, as is a clear understanding of each other’s aims and objectives.

Colleges have a number of avenues open to them when it comes to "finding" employers. Firstly, it’s worth looking at the employers you are already collaborating with – could these businesses recommend any of their contacts? Do any college board members have businesses or could they broker introductions to any other businesses they work for/with?

Ultimately, colleges have access to many business networks. Think about local business groups, chambers of commerce and LEP boards as well as your own College’s supply chain…the potential for employer engagement is vast.

Huge time commitment

Once a suitable and willing employer has been identified, the extent of their involvement must be agreed. In my experience, some of the best employer-college relationships have been created from small beginnings… with the employer gaining confidence and increasing their involvement as the partnership progresses.

Employers have businesses to run and may be put off if a huge time commitment is suggested. However, many will recognise the importance of supporting the next generation in order to secure their pipeline of skills – so it’s worth presenting a range of flexible options.

"Getting involved" can be as small as offering a one-off visit for students or delivering a masterclass – right through to supporting an ongoing project-based learning initiative or longer-term work placement. Importantly, it must be recognised that the smaller things can be just as valuable to students and the college as the larger projects.

It is also crucial for colleges to recognise what an employer expects from them and their students. Realistically, employers working with colleges will have their occasional frustrations. An employer’s mindset may differ from an educator’s mindset – and even more so to that of a young person!

Setting out expectations on both side of an employer-college partnership is key – and coming together to discuss challenges on both sides will ensure that any issues are addressed from the outset.

I am a firm believer that colleges and employers make fantastic partners – offering huge benefits to one another and to students. I look forward to supporting our network of Career Colleges around the country and helping then to make the most of so many willing employers, who themselves are keen to engage and support skills development.

Rachel May is director of employer involvement at the Career Colleges Trust


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