Remarkable findings issued in the past week reveal that businesses which are involved with further education colleges increased their turnover by almost pound;40 million between 2006 and 2008.
The 113 employers who responded to a survey by the Scottish Funding Council reported an average increase of pound;2.4 million for each business. In addition, over 800 jobs were created or safeguarded during the two years by 21 organisations alone. These results were attributed to the input of colleges.
This stems from the pound;12-million initiative by the Scottish Funding Council to ensure that "knowledge transfer" from FE benefits business. Previously, the emphasis on this kind of involvement with business was largely confined to the universities.
The funding council made sure the money was spent on engagement with employers and on knowledge transfer activities by ring-fencing it over a three-year period. A report by the council found that colleges felt the funding had given them "breathing space" to make progress in tackling barriers between the FE sector and the workplace, enabling them "to do more, sooner and to a higher quality".
The additional funds were used to buy in skills colleges lacked to deliver employer engagement and knowledge transfer, or release existing staff to do the job. "This suggests strongly that the funding is tackling a recognised deficiency in colleges' capabilities and readiness to operate in more commercial, customer-facing ways," the report states.
The largest impact on productivity cited by the private companies involved was a reduction in the time taken for staff to complete tasks. It had also led to cost savings, cited by 27 per cent of private employers.
John McClelland, chair of the SFC, said it was important for colleges to engage more closely with employers because "the capability to develop innovative products, services, processes and business practices can bring significant advantage to industry and commerce in Scotland".
Joe Mooney, chair of an action group on knowledge transfer for Scotland's Colleges, said the extra money had made the sector "a stronger solution provider to businesses, and it is very encouraging to see that 80 per cent of colleges say that they are involved with more employers as a result".
Mike Salter, chairman of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, commented: "We simply cannot afford not to engage and drive the skills agenda through our college network. You only have to look at our successful companies - they train continually and place their people at the centre.
"A key research finding for me was that a quarter of the companies surveyed said that the activity would not have happened without college involvement, and a further 40 per cent said that the project would have been delayed or would have been smaller in scope."
It is not just business which is reaping rewards, however. Nine out of 10 colleges said stronger links with employers had added value to their courses, and boosted their students' chances of finding work. The tie-up also had a spin-off in generating additional income which colleges were able to spend on other activities, such as community programmes.
But, while 77 per cent of the employers in the survey said they found colleges approachable, the FE sector is not proactive: 64 per cent of the engagements were initiated by the employer rather than the college.
Neil Munro, email@example.com.