A partnership between the Bluewater retail park and North West Kent College is intended to benefit the community and workers alike, reports Huw Richards
PROJECTED to attract 30 million visitors a year, Bluewater, the largest retail park in Europe, is the last giant out-of-town shopping centre following former environment secretary John Gummer's decision to impose an embargo on their development.
Its launch earlier this year was relatively low-key, with LendLease, the Australian-owned company that developed the centre and will run it, keen to sort out any teething problems before the place was deluged. There were still 70,000 visitors on opening day.
LendLease's intention to learn from the experience of other giant shopping malls is symbolised by one of the more unobtrusive of the 350 units in the vast triangular complex located in a giant chalk pit between Dartford and Gravesend, Kent. The Education Shop is both an outlet for North West Kent College and the product of a partnership between the college and the developers.
"We were determined that if we did a large project like this it should be rooted in its local community and provide benefits for them," says Alan Chisholm, chairman of Lendlease Projects.
However, LendLease was fully aware of the political and public relations benefits: "When local politicians and members of the community know people who are involved - people who are getting real jobs with real training - it is the best PR you can have."
The skills necessary for a major construction project employing around 5,000 people are not to be found overnight. Which is where the medium-sized North West Kent College came in. Its unique selling points are fire-service training and the National Sea Training College, which was incorporated in 1997.
Principal Malcolm Bell recalls: "Bluewater had an employment service office on site from day one. We were brought into the process very early on, about three years ago along with the adult education service, educational consultants Tomorrow's People and community groups."
These groups formed the North West Kent Partnership: "We started by looking at ways to prepare people in the community for opportunities in the construction industry, giving them the specialist skills needed, then, as construction went on, the focus moved on to catering and retail jobs."
The construction expertise and apprenticeship programmes developed by the college will have uses beyond Bluewater. Mr Bell says: "There will be a new hospital in the area, housing developments and the Channel Tunnel rail link at Ebbsfleet. There are five to ten years of substantial projects to come."
Some workers have moved from construction into other jobs at Bluewater. College enterprise manager Ann Komzolik says: "During the past six months, we devised exit strategies. There are still a fair number of construction and maintenance jobs, but for others it was a question of finding the training necessary for very different jobs, like car park attendants, who have to ensure that up to 13,000 cars move smoothly in and out."
The Education Shop opened along with the rest of Bluewater in mid-March.
It will act as a shop window and drop-in centre - the employment service is represented on-site - but its primary purpose is to supply the training needs of 6,700 Bluewater workers. Hence its quiet first-floor location and low-key signposting.
Manager Gillian Leader presides over a suite incorporating 42 computer terminals and meeting space for up to 100 people, space donated rent free by LendLease.
"We are very aware of the cost, but have no doubt that it will be an extremely good investment," says Alan Chisholm. "It gives focus and credibility to our aim of developing something different.".
Malcolm Bell reckons the centre will generate income from funding bodies such as the Further Education Funding Council and the local training and enterprise council, which will be at least double the rent.
The first classes began after Easter, but most will depend on on-site research: "Rather than telling people what we are going to offer, we will be going around the different retailers finding out their needs," says Ms Leader. "You have units varying from large chains that do most of their own training to small businesses that have the standard problems with releasing people, and staff who may be school-leavers or women returners."
The college has full academic responsibility for courses, which will certainly include the day-release Youth Retail Scheme: "Work here is as much part of the college as anything we do on our two campuses, and will be subject to the same standards and requirements," says Mr Bell.
For Mr Chisholm, who remembers Scottish schoolmates being warned "if you don't work hard, you'll end up working in a shop", the centre has a wider purpose than training Bluewater staff. "I want teachers to be saying, 'if you go into retailing, there's no limit to what you might achieve', and for people who go into retailing to want to come to Bluewater as the best place to train."