A Welsh consortium claims to have created new-style vocational colleges. Martin Whittaker reports
SOUTH Wales semiconductor manufacturing plant ESM has overcome the difficulties of getting staff to college for training: the trainers come to them.
"We've always been able to support a small number of employees each year who go to college," says Alan Williams, head of training and development at the Newport firm.
"The problem is that it's expensive and it doesn't always suit our employees. We have a high proportion of women among our operators and technicians. Often they have domestic responsibilities and would have found it difficult to attend college. On-site daytime training makes it more practical for them."
Further education lecturers come into the firm to deliver the BTEC national programme. The course units are customised to the firm's requirements.
"I think it's excellent," says Mr Williams. "We've been able to get a higher proportion of our workforce trained on programmes that meet our requirements rather than a general industry requirement. We provide some of the facilities, so the course costs are so much lower."
This liaison with industry comes via a collaboration of five South Wales FE colleges. SWEFIC - the South Wales Education for Industry Consortium - comprises Bridgend College, Barry College, Pontypridd College, Coleg Gwent and Coleg Glan Hafren. The partnership's groundbreaking work with industry won the Association of Colleges' 2001 Beacon Award for engineering.
SWEFIC began in 1998 in response to electronics companies moving in and a recognised need to improve the skills of the workforce.
Welsh Office funding allowed the colleges to invest in equipment and to begin producing high-quality learning materials, particularly aimed at helping small and medium-sized enterprises.
Now SWEFIC's work has been expanded into other manufacturing industries and three other colleges have joined - Aberdare, Merthyr and Ystrad Mynach.
SWEFIC has assembled specialised teams of lecturers who visit workplaces with the latest training equipment. With each company, they go through an analysis of training needs and develop an action plan.
Soon the consortium aims to use a new website and materials on CD-Rom for distance learning.
SWEFIC's recent expansion has come with a pound;750,000 grant from the Knowledge Exploitation Fund, a pound;22.8 million initiative run by Wales's education and training body ELWa to promote a "culture of entrepreneurship" in further education.
Colleges are appointing "entrepreneurship champions" - a senior member of staff who promotes enterprise. So far, 26 have been appointed and a further 12 take up posts shortly. Deeside College in north-east Wales is among those to have made such an appointment. The college has just won the Learning and Skills Development Agency college-employer partnerships award for its collaboration with industry.
Principal Wil Edmunds said: "We need an alternative HE so that people don't have to go to university."