A TES survey shows 62 of the 457 principals' jobs in England and Wales have been advertised since the beginning of the academic year, suggesting huge upheaval across FE colleges at a time of rapid policy change. Three principals' jobs in Scottish colleges were also advertised.
Only 17 vice-principal posts have been up for grabs over the same four months, but recruitment experts, and ambitious college managers, are poised for a flurry of opportunities as the rush of changes at the top filters down to second and third tier positions.
The average pay deal on offer to principals is a modest Pounds 52,500, roughly in line with the top-of-the-scale secondary school headteachers. But there are wide variations.
Some of the biggest jobs in FE simply promise "an attractive financial package", but the highest-published salary offers reach Pounds 70,000, while jobs running smaller colleges are more likely to bring in Pounds 40,000 to Pounds 45,000 a year.
Significantly, the small number of vice-principal positions available suggests only a small difference in pay, reflecting the importance governors place on the position. Indeed the average pay being offered in this year's job adverts is Pounds 48,000, only Pounds 2,500 below the principals' average, and significantly above the pay being offered to fully-fledged principals in many colleges.
Bernard Smith, general secretary of the Association of Principals of Colleges, said pay rates for the top jobs in FE were "diabolical".
He said: "The reality of the job is becoming a lot more stressful. It's extremely demanding now. School headteachers' jobs are fairly poorly paid for the kind of responsibility and stress involved, and I would think the job of a college principal is even more onerous. It has got even more difficult since incorporation."
APC is currently carrying out a survey of principals' pay to discover what rewards are on offer.
Mr Smith added: "We are finding more and more that there is a realisation from the colleges that the responsibility at the top is quite high and for that reason the services provided by organisation such as ours are very much in demand."
Steve Broomhead, principal of Warrington Collegiate Institute, and president elect of the Association of College Management, said: "It's probably due to the changes in the Teachers' Superannuation scheme. But the stresses on college managers have increased, and not all principals have gone by choice.
"A lot of people will be promoted to principal and it does raise questions about whether the management training they need is there."
The exodus among principals has prompted a new urgency in moves to train the next generation of senior managers.
The Association of College Management, the Association of Colleges and the Further Education Development Agency have been pressing ahead with management training programmes amid fears that too few second-tier staff may be qualified to take the helm.