In 1990 my company, GPT Telephone Cables Limited, faced a worsening problem. The average age of our workforce was high, younger people were tempted away by better opportunities or higher pay. Local skills shortages were severe and to recruit from elsewhere was prohibitively expensive.
Part of the company's solution was to encourage long-term skills growth within the local community. I joined the board of the emerging educationbusiness partnership and it was there, in 1992, that I met Ted Parker, the newly-appointed principal of Barking College in East London. Mr Parker, at his eloquent best, is most persuasive and convinced me that incorporation would bring massive opportunities and that personal involvement would benefit my company as well as the college.
Five years on from being elected to chair the College Corporation, has the reality met expectations?
From an employer's perspective we see colleges that are much more pro-active, that approve of us and want to understand our business and our needs. Solutions are tailored to us, may be delivered in our factory and are increasingly flexible. One result is that the 700 employees of my company have amassed 260 NVQs over the past three years. We have been able to adapt to enormous change and we now see staff staying with us because they have career and development prospects.
Customer focus has been a business imperative for the 1990s and we see the same ethos emerging in colleges. The assessor for my NVQ (in information technology) from Epping Forest College, Essex, - which is a major provider to our company - volunteered without prompting to time meetings to fit the unsocial hours that I work. Quality is high, backed by the self-assessmentinspection regimes similar to those we demand from all our primary suppliers. Above all, we achieve good value for money.
Competition and financial imperatives do have a downside. Our training manager cannot understand why, when two local colleges can half fill a specialist course, they both cancel and there is a provision gap. Or why following the withdrawal of demand-led funding, some colleges' interest in expanding provision with us ceased.
There is an increasing awareness in industry that the only source of long-term, sustainable, competitive advantage is our people. We have downsized, reduced delivery lead times and introduced team-work and empowerment. Each step increases the demands on employees, and we have to equip them with the skills to succeed.
The country must nurture high- level skills. But the major area of disadvantage is at levels 2 and 3; it is these skills that we need and colleges must be at the forefront of a national policy of provision.
College student numbers have grown by almost 30 per cent, unit costs have dropped by 28 per cent in real terms, and colleges are the largest and most cost-effective providers of 16-19 learning and vocational qualifications, which are delivered to high standards validated by a positive inspection regime. There are exciting initiatives around, including widening participation, inclusivity, the use of IT, and the prospects of a national training organisation for the sector.
I know that funding is a major issue, one that threatens many colleges and has to be resolved, but we also know that the Government is committed to education, that FE is central to its strategy and is increasingly recognised as such by ministers. We have to present a clear, consistent, and positive message to ensure that commitment is supported by cash.
But the biggest failure over the past five years is FE's inability to win the hearts and minds of politicians - and the population. The AOC was established to be the single voice of FE. Its power was fully demonstrated during the DLE crisis. It must not be diluted by internal wrangling, factionalism or individual self-interests.
With a new AOC board, we will have a chance to unite and work to ensure that colleges assume their rightful place in the national and political consciousness.
Jim Scrimshaw is acting chairman of the Association of Colleges and development director of GPT Telephone Cables Limited