Colleges must consider radical change if their involvement with employers is to be anything more than a cosmetic exercise, say new guidelines. And they have to have a flexible approach and a "can-do" attitude if they are to meet the needs of companies.
The guidelines, published by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), spell out the crucial role further education colleges have today, working with employers to meet the Government's skills agenda. Under reforms set out in Success For All, the Government's reform strategy for the learning sector, colleges have to agree targets in their three-year development plans for engaging employers.
"Many colleges and learning providers already have a strong employer-focused mission and are engaged in a huge range of business support," said Maria Hughes, the agency's research manager and the guide's author. "But others need to catch up. Until now the focus has been largely on providing education and training forindividuals rather than organisations. "The needs of the economy now require colleges to become much more engaged with employers and refocus their activities so that learning organisations provide a crucial support for business."
The guide, called Successful Engagement, explains the impact of stronger links with employers on colleges. It says the focus on employers must permeate the mainstream activities of a college.
"If promoting employer involvement is to be more than a cosmetic exercise, colleges and providers will need to consider radical changes to their mission and purpose," it says.
The guide demonstrates good practice by using case studies about colleges that effectively engage employers. It includes examples like the London College of Fashion's bespoke qualifications, and the Leeds College of Technology's media centre that helps local firms by testing printing plates.
In response to employers' complaints that college provision is often out of date, the guide gives the example of Cornwall College which has worked with a local shipyard to tackle a skills shortage (see previous page) Maria Hughes of the LSDA says the colleges featured demonstrate a "weather eye for the future".
"They know the effort that's needed to enable some of their learners to be employable. We want to have a hard economic mission embedded in colleges, but we have to bear in mind that it needs to be tempered alongside the aspirations of the individuals who are there.
"The other thing to bear in mind is that this is the starting point. We have never had employer engagement targets before. "These are examples of the kinds of things that people might want to do, but who knows? The imagination in the FE sector is tremendous."
Successful Engagement can be downloaded from www.lsda.org.uk