Closure of plant brings opportunity for local college

9th July 2010 at 01:00
A partnership between a manufacturer, the Scottish Funding Council and an FE provider helped hundreds of laid-off workers gain new skills

It's not often you hear someone say that being made redundant is the "best thing" that has happened to them.

But such is the case with Maureen Stevenson who, with the help of South Lanarkshire College, turned her redundancy into an opportunity to further her education and gain a place at university to become an adult nurse.

Maureen was one of 800 employees who lost their jobs last year, along with 200 subcontractors, during the phased closure of the Freescale (formerly Motorola) semi-conductor plant in East Kilbride.

The closure of the plant, within sight of the college's new campus, was a severe blow to the local economy, but also an opportunity for the college to demonstrate how further education can turn people's lives around.

On hearing of the closure, the college made contact with Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Freescale and drew up a bespoke "menu card" that enabled employees to tick what subjects they were interested in and what study mode would suit their circumstances. One thousand menus were distributed and over 500 employees responded positively to the opportunities on offer.

This helped to shape an individual prospectus for Freescale employees, which the college produced in less than three weeks. On this basis, the college was then offered additional funding from the Scottish Funding Council's PACE initiative - the Partnership for Action on Continuing Employment, set up by the Government last year to allow colleges to respond quickly when there are major redundancies.

The result is that some 473 former employees undertook courses at the college ranging from accounting, beauty therapy and business to health and social care, office admin and plumbing and gas. With some students taking more than one course, the number of enrolments exceeded 1,000.

"Initially, Freescale was apprehensive at our approach - redundancies are obviously a sensitive issue for any company - but when they saw what we were about and what we could offer, they were fully supportive," says the college principal, Stewart McKillop.

"It was the excellence of the partnership we had with the SDS, Job Centre Plus and PACE which facilitated our pretty speedy response to the situation and enabled us to take things forward so quickly," he says.

Courses taken up ranged from "short bursts of learning" to full-time programmes and included an accelerated Access programme enabling university entrance this autumn. A full-time plumbing course was specifically designed for some of the former employees, incorporating "gas safe" training and assessment and "renewables" units to make participants ready for employment.

Where the college's direct provision did not meet with individual requirements, it acted as a "broker" or "one-stop-shop" to help place former employees at other colleges, such as West Lothian and Cardonald.

"We had to give considerable guidance and support initially, not least because a lot of the workers had been employed there for more than 20 years. Some even met their partners there. So, for quite a few, the wrench was big," says Mr McKillop.

In answer to why the college was so keen and so quick to get involved, he says quite simply: "It's what we're here for. It's why colleges exist. They are second-chance institutions and we want to be the leading provider of vocational education."

One irony of the situation is that many of the former employees drove past the new college campus as it was being built, and many have commented on this, never thinking that one day soon they would be students there.

"The irony for every FE college is that every economic downturn leads to more college applications," says Mr McKillop. "Presently we have five times the number of applications for each full-time place we can offer."

But perhaps the best card in the South Lanarkshire College pack in this instance was the "menu card".

"It was our idea. It was user-friendly and it enabled us to design and produce a brochure very quickly indeed. That helped with morale. The workers could see that they could turn their lives around, that there were other opportunities for them," says Mr McKillop.

He is very proud of the college's response. "It was the right thing to do and it was the partnership embracing PACE which made it possible.

"This is an example of how we contribute to the economy and that's our main function in life. We do courses of high economic value. For every pound we get, we create at least pound;3 for the economy - as well, of course, as being a major employer in South Lanarkshire, with over 300 staff and an annual turnaround of pound;12 million."

`There is life after being made redundant'

Maureen Stevenson, former manufacturing operator with Freescale, enrolled on SWAP (Scottish Wider Access Programme) to Nursing

"Progression for me will be to go on to university and complete my three- year course to become an adult nurse. I'd like to work with children or cancer patients. Being at college has been a totally different experience from working nights, doing 12-hour shifts, working every weekend.

"I've found the course extremely hard but loved every minute of it, even the assessments. I'm amazed at the amount I've learnt in such a short time, including subjects such as communications, maths and psychology, which I didn't think I'd achieve in.

"The support from the lecturers has been great and I've gained a lot in confidence. I found the process of becoming a student again rewarding.

"I'd recommend this course to anyone at any age. You might not think there is life after being made redundant, but there is, and it has been the best thing that has happened to me."

Raymond Ross

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