Lecturers tame the lions of industry
The Lecturers into Industry scheme has seen 101 placements organised in engineering, software engineering, construction and hospitality since it was introduced in 1999 and is now being extended to health and social care.
All 16 of Northern Ireland's general further education colleges have released staff, with placements of six to 12 weeks funded by the Stormont-based Department for Employment and Learning.
The scheme is run by Karen McCann of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which recently formed a dedicated Northern Ireland office headed by Trevor Carson, previously with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges.
Lecturers into Industry came from an idea thrashed out by Jimmy McKeown, Northern Ireland regional secretary of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, and David Hatton, chief executive of the Engineering Training Council in the province.
Just a month after the first meeting, initial funding of pound;300,000 was agreed. The Good Friday Agreement on the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland had come at just the right time. Mr Carson said: "The Chancellor Gordon Brown was throwing money at Northern Ireland to convince us of the value of the Agreement."
With many lecturers already aware that there industry knowledge may be a little rusty, and the constant moans about how out of date they are from employers, Lecturers into Industry sounded at first like going into the lion's den.
But there is already evidence that the scheme is changing the attitudes of employers as much as the lecturers who take part.
Felix Hagan, an engineering lecturer at the Belfast Institute, the province's largest FE and HE college, last worked in the industry 14 years ago.
He was a stress engineer at Shorts, which made the box-shaped propeller-driven airliners famous for being able to operate on short runway, and found himself returning there on a Lecturers into Industry placement.
The Belfast factory, since bought by Bombardier Aerospace, a Canadian firm, now makes short-range jet airliners and the luxury Learjet plane.
Mr Hagan, most of whose students are Bombardier modern apprentices on day-release, says he is now better able to relate his teaching to their work.
He said: "When I'm explaining something to the students I can relate it more to their products rather than simply talking about aircraft in general.
"We can even use parts which they supply and work on those ourselves. And they will supply staff to help in the teaching of certain parts of the course."
He says relations with Bombardier are stronger than before.
There are monthly meetings with the company and his contact with the students' bosses means he has a better feel for how they are getting on in the workplace.
He said: "Students know that if they get a warning about attendance then that, effectively, is a warning from the employer. And if they have a particular apprentice who needs help in particular area, we can address it.
"This scheme was described to me as a win-win situation, for everybody involved. I was pretty sceptical at first but it's proved to be the case."
In Belfast though, as in many other large cities, engineering does not have the same hold on the labour market as before and it is, perhaps, a sign of the times that the biggest area for Lecturers into Industry is hospitality - with 37 placements so far.
John McGuigan, an official at the department who was recently seconded to the Tourism Training Trust, has seen the change in Ulster eating habits, with the denizens of the six counties expecting something more exotic.
He said: "Fifteen years ago you would walk past a bombed-out Europa Hotel looking for something to eat and there'd be the choice of pizza and fish and chips. Not now."
Michael Deane, one of the city's best-known chefs, has been an outspoken critic of further education's failure to keep up. So Audrey Clements, a lecturer at the Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College, was well and truly in the lion's den when she did a placement at his restaurant for four weeks.
At the end of it, she was able to report back that the quality of her teaching had improved.
Into the bargain, the "lion" appears to have been tamed. Mr Deane has been giving cooking demonstrations to colleges.
Northern Ireland's scheme will be evaluated by the London office of the LSDA, which may attempt to introduce the scheme in some of the Learning and Skills Council's 47 areas.
At pound;700 per week per lecturer, mainly to pay for teaching cover, the LSC will need sound evidence that it works.
But if the money is forthcoming, English industry, which already has a strong voice in the national and local LSCs, will have one less reason to claim that colleges are out of touch with its needs.