An employment scheme that marries work and study is keeping young people on course. Martin Whittaker reports
A COLLEGE is helping hard-up students to stay on course by finding them part-time jobs that fit in with their studies.
Warrington Collegiate Institute set up its Job Shop to stem the tide of teenagers who abandon their courses each year for the lure of a pay packet.
Since its launch in April 2002, the innovative scheme has found part-time work for some 280 students. It now has more than 100 employers on its books and has begun to see an improvement in student retention.
The Job Shop has received an award for excellent practice from the National Association for Managers of Student Services (Namss), and has had a flood of enquiries from other colleges.
Bob Hughes, the association's vice-chair who judged the award, now wants to set up a similar project at Weston College in Somerset, where he is customer services manager. He believes that the Warrington college's initiative is a relatively inexpensive way for a college to keep its students while also helping to educate employers about students' needs.
"I was very impressed," he said. "What happens in most FE colleges is that we get employers giving us vacancies because they think we have got lots of kids who want to leave and get a job.
"But most colleges do not have any decent system for doing anything with these vacancies. They come into college, you stick them up on notice boards, you give them out to whoever you think is the most appropriate head of section and that is that - it's very passive."
Warrington, in Cheshire, has low unemployment and is enjoying a boom in job vacancies. And because Warrington students have not been eligible for education maintenance allowance grants, there has been pressure on many students to drop out and get a job.
"In September and October, at any one time you can have 500 vacancies in the run-up to Christmas," said Marie Keeley, the college's student welfare team leader.
"We find that a lot of young people start with us, and then their mates have jobs and money. And the next thing is they leave us. After Christmas, they no longer have that job - they'd like to come back to college but they've fallen behind."
Job Shop was set up with Learning and Skills Council funding, in partnership with Connexions and the Employment Service.
First, students register with the service. Then they are matched with the available vacancies, with working hours tailored to their own particular timetables. If a job vacancy of 20 hours a week becomes available, Job Shop co-ordinator Betty Merness will help to negotiate with the employer to split the job between two students so that working hours can be kept down.
Ms Merness also helps students to develop their job-seeking skills, such as writing a CV or interview techniques. She liaises with employers and tutors, and monitors students to ensure that their jobs do not cause them to fall behind with course assignments.
"Often young people don't have the skills to negotiate," said Ms Keeley.
"With some firms, the work suddenly increases from eight hours a week to 20. We had one girl who worked 40 hours a week, holding down a full-time job. That's a disaster - eventually we would have lost her and two years down the line she would have regretted it."
One spin-off of the scheme has been to improve links with local firms.
Increasingly, employers are coming into college to help with careers education, and work experience links have been strengthened in the process.
The college is also developing a programme to help the students who are hardest hit by debt to bridge the gap from benefits into employment.
From September, Warrington Collegiate Institute will be expanding the Job Shop to make it available across the college. (At its launch, the scheme was aimed only at level 2 students.) So what do the students think? Gary Moors, 19, recently finished his third year at the college and is going on to university to do sports studies.
After he had struggled to find work, Job Shop found him a part-time job as a supermarket cashier. The job has helped to keep his head above water throughout his final year.
"I just needed that extra bit of cash to get me through college," he said.
"I was asked what I could and could not do, and they found a job that would accommodate me.
"I've had help any time I needed advice with anything - like career options, or CVs, where to find work and how to approach applications."
Helen Webb, 18, is a business studies student who has her sights set on being a primary school teacher. The Job Shop found her a weekend job doing data entry with a local firm. She said she needs the extra cash to pay for her bus fares to and from college.
"I think it's a really good idea," she said. "They are very approachable, very friendly and they try to find the best job that's suited to you and what you can do."