For the past five years, we have been working with colleges around the country to create employer and career-led pathways for students. The broad vocational expertise across the FE sector is immense. We need to expand, develop and nurture this to ensure young people are equipped with the right skills to support the economy.
However, too many FE colleges remain focused on individual courses and qualifications, as opposed to looking at the bigger picture of overall employability and career ambition. Some say to us "we already engage with employers" and "we have specialist provision", but the truth is it is rarely designed with/by employers, rarely involves ongoing projects with employers and is generally designed based on a qualification curriculum rather than a fast-track to work with the qualification(s) built in.
In a very challenging financial environment, it is completely understandable that colleges have to get as many students through the door as possible and stick with qualification pathways they know will recruit. We also can’t expect teachers to be experts in career guidance and skill shortages, and therefore there is often little guidance for learners on career opportunities, and how to get there, beyond "traditional" or historical routes.
Quality versus quantity
A great example of this is catering – it is easy to see a route to being a chef, but what about restaurant manager, hotel manager or concierge? How about digitech careers – who feels confident about the digital skills required for our digital economy? What’s needed is quality CPD for staff, national projects with major employers and support for educators.
It is no wonder then that quality will occasionally lose out to quantity, with the wrong students on the wrong courses. This leads to a high drop-out rate, and ultimately wasted years and financial hardship all round. It also affects progression within colleges, as you cannot expect a student to progress through different levels if they are on the wrong course in the first place.
But how can colleges tackle this cycle? How can they ensure that students are not viewing their courses as isolated events within their educational journey – but as a vehicle to take them to their dream job?
We encourage our Career Colleges to take a much broader look at the skills students are acquiring during their course – and to demonstrate to students the breadth of what different industries can offer. Construction, for example, is about so much more than learning to lay bricks, but many parents perceive it as "low-paid labour".
Construction students need to be learning about modern techniques being used to build iconic structures around the world, and understand the huge demand for these specific skills, great pay and career prospects. Consider buildings and bridges now being built with 3D printers!
Clear picture of industry
By offering your students a clearer picture of the industry in which they are studying, you will have a much better chance of inspiring and encouraging them – as well as ensuring they pick the right course in the first place. Giving young people a very real line of sight to a future career is often the motivation that’s needed for them to stop viewing their course as a year they simply have to get through – and instead seeing it as the start of their journey to an exciting future.
To create these inspirational career pathways, as well as effective career advice from sector professionals, colleges must provide as much exposure to the world of work as possible. This can be via work placements, shadowing, masterclasses – basically putting their students in front of the people who know the business inside out.
For this career-focused approach to be successful, it has to be embedded and embraced throughout the college – by senior management, tutors, and indeed the marketing and recruitment teams who communicate the colleges’ messages to prospective students.
Changing the way colleges view courses is no easy task. But those who are up for the challenge will reap the benefits – as will their students, employers and the economy.
Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust