Employers frequently boast about how people are their most important asset but, in further education, the value of staff with the most expertise in human resources is often overlooked. Personnel managers are often stuck in middle-management posts and forced to report to vice-principals or directors who may be swamped with more pressing issues than whether the college is getting the most from employees.
About two-thirds of budgets go on salaries. At its most basic level, personnel management can be a tedious diet of pay and pensions, with the occasional industrial tribunal or dispute thrown in for variety.
It did not help that, after colleges left local authority control seven years ago, personnel people spent their early years handling a dispute with lecturers. Recently, many colleges have realised they must do more than argue over contracts if they are to recruit and retain employees capable of delivering education of the highest possible quality.
Bob Brookes, director of corporate services at Loughborough College and a qualified human resources manager, describes the contracts dispute as "one of the less pleasant aspects of people-management". He would rather be dealing with benefits, staff development and helping people balance home and work.
He joined Loughborough in 1994 from North Derbyshire health authority, where he was personnel director. He had spent 22 years in the National Health Service. He is now responsible for personnel, estates and legal services.
After incorporation in 1993, colleges were getting used to the fact that they, rather than local authorities, were in control of personnel issues. People brought in from outside FE faced a particular challenge in winning over teachers, who tended to view them as troublemakers trying to impose an alien culture.
"It's sometimes difficult for personnel specialists to gain credibility with teachers if they do not come from FE," says Mr Brookes. "We have to demonstrate that we have skills and knowledge that we can bring to the college but one has to be sympathetic and understand the stresses facing teachers so that you know where they're coming from."
Just as lecturers learned to accept the growing influence of finance and marketing professionals, Mr Brookes believes they now acknowledge the role of personnel specialists in institutions in which there are large numbers of people working in vastly contrasting job roles.
While personnel people have increasingly been promoted to senior manager or director posts, there remains a substantial proportion in middle management who report to non-personnel seniors.
Heather Moore, human resources manager at Worthing Sixth Form College, Sussex, says: "We are dealing with two different sets of terms and conditions. Pay scales for support staff are generally much lower, but it's difficult when you get the blurring of job descriptions, such as with the introduction of instructor grades."
The picture could become more complex in the next few years as personnel departments need to check whether teachers have the necessary qualifications. "There are going to be big issues for human resources in terms of providing training and resourcing colleges, so that people can go off and receive training," says Ms Moore.
While human resources managers are usually responsible for the recruitment and retention of employees, training and development is sometimes treated separately. In fact, it is not unheard of for staff development officers to report to the director of quality, even with a human resources person on the seniormanagement team.
About 300 colleges have gained the Investors In People standard for staff training but, it seems, many colleges give more attention to employee development than to other personnel issues. The fact that the two are dealt with separately is probably because colleges once held responsibility for staff development.
Jeff Glasgow, director of corporate services at the Learning and Skills Development Agency (formerly Feda), says it is better if human resources and staff development managers report to a single senior manager. "If you separate recruitment and selection from the development of the staff, you're going to run into problems," he says.
The Association for College Management believes the two functions should be linked more closely. "Staff development and human resources must be brought together, particularly now the standards agenda is so central to colleges and upskilling the FE workforce so critical to our success," says Nadine Cartner, the association's education officer .
FE inspectors often comment on whether a college has gained Investors in People but neglect to look at human resources issues.
Jim Donaldson, the Further Education Funding Council's chief inspector, says his teams examine whether a college is an equal opportunities employer, or occasionally comment on staff morale, or whether a high turnover of staff is having an effect on the delivery of teaching. Otherwise, terms and conditions are a matter for individual colleges.
"We don't look at personnel policy in a systematic way," he says. "We see it as part of the operationalmanagement of the college."
Despite human resources sometimes being overlooked, there is no evidence that colleges are failing to employ qualified professionals to do the job. Rosemary Varley, director of personnel at Blackpool and The Fylde College, says: "Since independence, it's been change on change, but, by and large, we've coped."
EQUALITY FOR PART-TIMERS
Most human resources managers welcome the chance to respond to the complex issues that have emerged in their field in recent years, many of which have sprung from European Union legislation. They recognise that people with happier lives outside work are more likely to be conscientious employees.
Some employees are unhappy about the burden of keeping detailed records, such as those needed to comply with the working time directive, but FE colleges are no strangers to providing detailed management data. In some cases, they see legislation as an incentive to come up with more imaginative practice.
Ranjna Palmer, director of personnel at City College, Birmingham, says human resources staff should welcome the opportunity to be more than simply "glorified administrators". "People expect us to accommodate their needs," says Ms Palmer. "When some employees at the college were diagnosed with cancer, we provided a range of support.
"You have to be a counsellor, friend and employer," she adds.
Some colleges offer leave for carers as well as parents although they only have to pay for maternity leave. Andy Robinson, personnel director at Stoke-on-Trent, says his college has concentrated on strategic matters in the past few years, including a new management absence policy and consultation with unions over linking pay to achievement and student retention.
Part-timers are now entitled to the same benefits as full-timers. Many colleges have torn up fixed-termcontracts previously held by part-time lecturers and offered them fractional contracts with better rights.
Rosemary Varley, director of personnel at Blackpool and The Fylde, says the three greatest challenges now facing personnel managers in FE are "re-organisation, legislation and equalisation". For part-timers, equalisation is the issue. "We took a conscious decision before the part-time workers' directive to create fractional posts. When other colleges went down the agency route, we went down the equality route," says Ms Varley.
She represents the Association for College Management on a national working group set up by FE employers and unions to look at family-friendly policies. While regulations may have a slightly different impact on individual colleges, all institutions are being encouraged to see recent legislation as a chance to turn themselves into "preferred employers".
Sue Berryman, an assistant secretary at Natfhe, the lecturers' union, who is also a member of the working group, says there are some examples of good practice but these are by no means universal.
One way in which professionals from outside FE have helped is inmoving part-time lecturers tofractional contracts.
"I don't think that would have happened with academic managers planning the personnel role," she says. "It's not happened everywhere, but it is something that we applaud."
MEN TAKE TOP JOBS IN A FEMALE WORLD
When people in human resources talk about being "IPD qualified", it means they are allowed to become members of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
The institute has about 108,000 members, filling a range of roles in personnel and training. To become an associate member, people must gain an institute certificate in personnel or training practice, which is equivalent to a National Vocational Qualification at level 3.
Graduate members have completed the institute's professional standards, which cover core management, core personnel and development, and generalist and specialist personnel and development.
With the proper qualifications, personnel staff in colleges can offer generic management skills. Where staff are not institute members, colleges will sometimes help employees to gain the qualifications.
Mike Cannell, the institute 's training and development adviser, says colleges need fully-qualified personnel staff to manage the "complex working relationships" that evolve in workers' various contracts. "You must establish fairness between different categories of workers and try to iron out tensions," he says. Among institute members, women outnumber men by roughly two to one, but there are 4,356 men holding director-level posts, compared with 2,505 women.
Last year's CIPD reward survey showed personnel directors earn an average of pound;52,000, personnel managers earn an average of pound;33,426, and personnel officers pound;25,203.
Mr Cannell says he believes, since incorporation, the best colleges have used people-management to get the most from their staff.
"If you don't get the people element right, you're in trouble. Having a good set of human resources policies is one of the key determinants of success," he says.
But he is concerned that, in spite of being training providers, colleges do not always recognise the need to integrate their approaches to staff development with the solutions that are developed on the recruitment and retention side.
"It's obvious that organisations that care about developing staff are more likely to be able to recruit and retain them," says Mr Cannell.
"You have to see the development function as part of personnel so that there is a link between recruiting and training people."
TIME TO CALL IN OUTSIDE HELP
When Greenwich Community College faces a complex personnel problem, it usually calls in outside expertise. Like many others, the south London college has no qualified human resources person in its senior management team. Instead, the head of personnel reports to Andy Lightbown, the assistant principal.
The college was created three years ago by the merger of Woolwich College and a local authority-run institution also called Greenwich Community College. Before the merger, Woolwich considered appointing an assistant principal who would have been responsible for human resources, but it decided the appointment was too expensive.
The preferred solution was to use consultants who could be called in when needed. Since 1998, Stuart McNicholas, who has worked as a human resources consultant for nearly four years, has offered managers at the college advice on re-structuring following the merger, a new collective agreement covering part-time lecturers and, most recently, a new human resources strategy.
Last summer's dispute with Natfhe over part-time lecturers was a particularly fraught time for the college. It eventually ended in a deal linking part-timers' pay to that of full-time staff. "It provides part-timers with a reasonable increase ," says. Mr McNicholas. "Everybody felt it was reasonable."
He believes trade unions have an important role to play in employee relations. When he meets them,however, he never disguises that he represents management.
"I've always maintained good professional relations (with unions) but the only time they see me is as part of college management," he says. "I'm quite clear about the fact that my role is to give professional advice to college managers. I'm not an independent arbiter."
Greenwich employs nearly 400 full-time staff and 400 to 500 part-time lecturers. Mr McNicholas, who works for the college an average of 30 days per year, is one of its two human resources consultants.
Andy Lightbown relies on his head of personnel for day-to-day advice but says that is only part of the picture he presents at senior management meetings. "When you get to senior level, you need that advice, but there are also other considerations which come into play when you're making your decisions."
Consultants, he adds, have the opportunity to devote time to specific issues facing the college in a way that most operational managers do not. The current review of human resources strategy, for example, is examining Greenwich's long-term curriculum needs and how it can attract and retain the staff it requires to meet them.
"It requires a quite sophisticated approach which is by-and-large delivered through human resources," says Mr McNicholas."You have to interlink it with where a college is going and what its capabilities are. A college is only as capable as its staff."