In the first in a series of features on jobs Nick Holdsworth reveals the lack of training opportunities.
Embarking on a career in further education is not for the faint-hearted. There's no central agency responsible for providing advice, support or training for aspiring lecturers and managers; no particular career pattern; and no formal requirements for teaching qualifications.
In the three years since the 400 FE colleges in England and Wales were given independence from local authority control, provisions for student support and course guidance have multiplied in tandem with fierce competition for students and the fee income they represent.
But the more cohesive and rigorous approach to the product has not been matched by new measures for staff development or recruitment, according to the FE unions and professional associations.
Colleges have shed full and part-time staff through a series of massive redundancies; part-time specialists have been squeezed and the lecturers' union, NATFHE, remains in dispute with the new college employers' body over the drive for new contracts.
But with a new culture, where colleges are responsible for delegated budgets and operate in effect as small and medium-sized businesses, the pressure for part-timers to go fully freelance is increasing. Lack of coherent training and support throughout the sector for managers has been identified as the critical policy concern for colleges by the Association of College Managers. The Colleges' Employers' Forum says the "next explosion of investment in the sector will be in staff development".
For many new entrants the traditional way in through the part-time path remains the most direct. FE teachers do not need a professional qualification to do the job, but they do need relevant experience in the field in which they wish to teach. Most gain teaching qualifications as they progress: analysis of the Further Education Funding Council inspection reports carried out by NATFHE in the past year shows that up to 90 per cent of lecturers and managers have some form of teaching qualification and 60 per cent have taken full-time teaching courses. Most colleges are still spending 1 per cent of their budget on staff training and development - the old local authority figure - but some spend as little as 0.3 per cent, according to the union assistant secretary Derek Betts.
Approaching colleges and asking for work is still the most frequent and successful method of getting started. But newcomers to FE cannot expect job security, according to Dan Taubman, also a NATFHE assistant secretary.
"We get a lot of calls from people who have been made redundant from a wide range of jobs and professions and they think teaching is safe and secure, but it's not. By and large colleges are not nice places any more - people are having to work much harder in worse conditions teaching more subjects."
For those willing to take the plunge Mr Taubman, like others more positive about the new commercial culture found in colleges today, says defining talents and refining skills is a wise move. Many new teachers take the City and Guilds "730" FE teaching course; colleges traditionally support staff in this.
There are full-time one-year FE teaching courses on offer at a small number of universities, but most higher education institutions offer a range of courses relevant to teachers who wish to improve their classroom skills.
Signing up with an agency is another route open to part-timers: Education Lecturing Services, a non-profit teacher supply agency launched earlier this year, has more than 42,000 part-time lecturers on its books.
The lecturers are regarded as self-employed, but the agency deals with tax and national insurance, sickness and maternity benefit deductions. Colleges pay a percentage commission based on lecturers' earnings, which average Pounds 17 an hour and so far more than 30,000 assignments have been processed by the Nottingham-based company, according to its director Geoff Lennox.
"Ultimately we hope to open up the market for part-time lecturers, giving people the ability to have a wide market for their skills."
Training is the key word for mid-term career staff in FE. John Mowbray, secretary of the Association of College Managers, believes that without appropriate training the new culture in FE colleges will not succeed in transforming colleges and creating institutions fit to teach in the 21st century. He says: "We need a proper national framework for the professional development of managers and lecturers in FE."
Many colleges do provide core training for their managers but more is needed, most agencies agree. The Further Education Development Agency is launching a national programme of six management development courses next month.
The absence of a central agency for training and career development in the sector is likely to rise up the political agenda in the coming months.
Tony Watts, director of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, says: "At a time when the FE sector is giving far more attention than before to guidance and progression for learners in the system , it is significant that this is not reflected in measures for staff.
"The developments for learners are more likely to be effective if employers apply this to staff too."