Colleges that don't look like colleges will attract employers and their training cash says national skills chief David Way
It was while he was working in the Black Country that David Way realised just how much skills training could improve the quality of people's lives.
"I became passionate about it," he said. "I got a buzz out of seeing their success."
The former chief of the Black Country Learning and Skills Council now has a key role to play in spreading that "buzz" across the whole country. As the LSC's national director of skills, he is developing the skills part of the LSC's "agenda for change", the six-part programme to transform FE that also aims to improve quality, funding, efficiency, data, and reputation.
The years he spent in the West Midlands have shaped his approach to boosting skills. "I saw people's confidence boosted and their lives changed by acquiring skills and jobs they never thought possible for them," Mr Way said.
"In the Black Country I saw a low-skills economy. All the forecasts told us that all new jobs are going to be at higher skills levels.
"It seemed imperative to upskill those companies, otherwise we were going to risk deprivation and economic decline that was going to be hard to reverse."
He came to realise that to improve the lives of workers, it was necessary to improve the competitiveness of the companies that employed them.
He added: "What I have discovered in my recent jobs is the need to upskill companies if they are to remain competitive and continue to employ people.
"My passion is to ensure that more of the learning we do is regarded by employers as high quality and really relevant to their competitiveness.
"There is a strong business and social dimension to education. When I see people who have achieved learning, they are always proud of their achievement and so motivated, you can't help sharing in their joy and their success."
He sees Warwickshire College's newly-opened Trident Centre, a state-of-the-art technology and business skills centre, as an example of what he would like to see in colleges throughout the country.
Situated on a business park on the outskirts of Leamington Spa, with a distinctive roof shaped like the aerofoil of a Formula One racing car, the centre houses a series of workshops including facilities for robotics, computer-aided design and vehicles, as well as pound;1 million aircraft engines.
"It is a real mix of college and business. If you took down the signs, you would not know this was a college. It doesn't feel divorced from business and industry. It feels like an extension of it."
Such centres will have succeeded, he says, if employers who want to tackle their skills issues turn to them - something that is clearly happening already.
"The facilities are impressive and so is the culture. The leadership is strong on establishing long-term relationships with business. The college offers something that business needs, will invest in themselves, and use over a long period of time.
"For many businesses that get their training done here, this becomes their regional presence, and the whole affect is to boost the reputation of the college.
"Businesses can come here feeling comfortable that they will find high-quality training, and individuals can come here for the skills they need for local employment."
Ioan Morgan is principal of Warwickshire, which has been rated outstanding by inspectors. Mr Morgan said the centre had costpound;10m to build but, in its first year alone, had generated pound;3.5m of income for the college, increasing the number of of employers who used it by 30 per cent increase. He said: "What we do is become part of the strategic planning process of a company, by becoming its training arm. There are companies who say we have transformed their business.
"Employers will invest in places like this if they can see they are going to get a good return and see a business benefit."
David Way added: "To be able to bring employers to centres like this shows them that we mean business. It gives a very positive impression of what the further education sector can deliver.
"We are taking examples like this and showing other colleges that want to be part of the business community in the same way how it can be achieved.
"This isn't achieved overnight. It takes a clear vision to plan and succeed, and to be more responsive to the needs of employers. With this learning centre you are able to give a demonstration of what is possible.
"We are aiming to replicate this across the country so the whole profile of further education will be raised. I think that is a fantastic goal to achieve.
"Is this relevant for every single institution? No. Some organisations are community-based and that is their strength. But in every locality we need to have a mix that meets the needs of the business community."