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When brochures just aren't enough

Many colleges struggle to engage local employers. James Sturcke on fresh ways to get firms to take an interest

Pat Whittome knew the odds were not in her favour - but the turnout was disastrous.

In April, the assistant director at Bedford college sent invitations for a technology open day to more than 300 local firms to promote courses and student skills.

Ministers and industry may complain about FE failing to work with employers, but she knew that in reality it would not be easy to convince local bosses to give up time. She even got a colleague to ring round to check the invitations were addressed correctly. But her efforts were in vain.

"Of the 300 invitations, eight firms turned up," she said. "It was so disappointing. We phoned some that didn't attend. Mostly they said they hadn't seen the invitation. It is just so difficult to get through to them."

She and Bedford college are not alone. Most of the nearly 200 delegates representing 120 colleges at a Computer and Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) conference in London in July said they were still not good at generating links with local employers.

It is not a new complaint. Colleges were told they were partly to blame because they were failing to be creative and effective in marketing themselves. The association's vice-president, Steve Gilroy, said:

"Employers are not interested in a list of courses. If you give them a brochure they will go 'Ugh'. They do not want to buy courses. They want to buy skills. If you tell them you can give them 200 skilled technicians, yes, that is something they are interested in."

A first step is to get to know human resources managers at local firms. But that may not be enough. Increasingly, colleges should have a dedicated officer to develop links with companies, Mr Gilroy said.

A poll of hands at the conference revealed fewer than a dozen of the colleges or training providers had a full-time account manager such as Paul Murray, business director of InfoTech, a company based in Pembrokeshire.

He told FE Focus: "Our liaison officer's role is to visit employers across Wales and promote apprenticeships, offer skills training and, in effect, do what the Learning and Skills Council should do. He is also responsible for employer contracts and negotiating financial reimbursement. You can't just send out invitations to firms and expect them to come because they won't."

Ian Green, of Wigan and Leigh college, told delegates: "Colleges need to be more about being a business. You need to be able to deliver courses part-time, full-time, in short blocks or for the whole year, depending on client requirements."

The conference was told that CompTIA, which runs a globally recognised "A+" award in computer maintenance, has been boosting links between industry and training providers.

Employers make up many of its 19,000 association members and it hosts sessions at colleges for local firms. With A+ included by awarding bodies City amp; Guilds and OCR as part of their IT qualifications, it also qualifies for LSC funding.

Rob Guiver, European technology manager of NRG, a subsidiary of photocopier company Ricoh, said: "One of the biggest fears of industry is that we spend all this money training people and then they leave. That is wrong.

"If you train people, they feel valued and they stay. I always tell my bosses, 'What happens if we don't train them and they stay?'

"Industry is not aware of what FE is doing. My biggest fear is that we have a lot of people out there who have been trained and are not being used because industry does not know they are there."

E-skills, the sector skills council for the IT and telecoms sectors, has designed a new ITQ qualification, essentially an NVQ in IT which launches on August 1.

It also runs schemes such as computer clubs for girls to raise interest in IT and can help to train FE lecturers.

Eleanor Byram, project manager, said: "It is so important that we talk to employers so that they know you are delivering the skills to develop the UK's IT industry."

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