I was interested to read in your columns of the ex-plumber who reckoned he'd be earning pound;50,000 in his trade rather than pound;25,000 as an FE lecturer.
The gap between FE pay and that in the trades and industries for which college lecturers prepare students is even more dramatic than the 6 per cent gap with schools. So no surprise that the recent survey by the Learning and Skills Network for the University and College Union showed widespread dissatisfaction with pay; nor that our members were preparing for a strike as FE Focus went to press.
The report of this independent survey, which had more than 3,000 respondents, covers colleges in England and should be taken seriously. On the positive side, staff - including 86 per cent of those who teach - felt their job enabled them to make a contribution to society.
But on pay, work-life balance and job security, it was a different story. People's views on their own institutions were very worrying, with only 39 per cent overall, and 31 per cent of lecturers, saying they would recommend their organisation as a good place to work. Many experienced staff planned to leave.
What is going on? It's not that FE is still the Cinderella sector. The Government understandably bangs on about the 50 per cent increase in spending in the past decade. It points to improvements in building, workforce development plans, colleges' central role in raising skills and social inclusion. But getting on to the dance floor doesn't mean you've got the frock or the glass slippers, or that you're really part of the in- crowd.
Less than a quarter of lecturers believed their pay was adequate. Some 70 per cent of staff thought they could earn more outside FE - 30 per cent substantially more. Half of all lecturers and managers didn't feel they had a good work-life balance. Less than a quarter of teachers thought their organisation offered them flexible working arrangements that would help. And 74 per cent of lecturers reported too much stress in their job.
A substantial minority of lecturers believed their institutions would tolerate bullying. And only 31 per cent of teaching staff felt secure, compared with a UK average for all jobs of 57 per cent.
FE can be proud of many things, but neglecting the infrastructure in the ways revealed by our survey carries very high risks. Whether or not all those planning or wanting to leave actually do, it is widely accepted that FE has to be engaged in large-scale succession planning because of its age profile.
In a 2007 consultation report, Lifelong Learning UK estimated that FE could, by 2014, require at least 200,000 new recruits to satisfy both predicted expansion and replacement demand.
I would ask employers and government: where are these self-sacrificing mortals going to come from? Would you advise your son or daughter to enter a profession in which the earning potential is so poor, and the stresses and strains so high?
Young people may be as idealistic as ever, but they are also hard-headed. And why would those with the skills needed for the employment directions of students today forsake their own industries for a post in FE, or stay long if they ventured in?
I say to employers and government: it's time staff saw some of the increased resources for colleges in a decent pay rise, and time for all managements to ensure that their college environment is a rewarding, reasonable, secure and motivating place to be.
Sally Hunt, General secretary of the University and College Union.