Equipping workers with critical skills is key to widening access to secure and good quality work. A well-skilled labour force would deliver economic benefits too, with employers more able to grow and improve productivity. Arguably, unlocking training opportunities represents one of the most important ways for Government to advance its plan to level up opportunities across the UK.
Against this backdrop, Government has recently proposed reforms which give employers a central role in the provision of technical education. Employers often contend with skills gaps at the higher technical level, and so addressing these gaps has become a key imperative for Government.
What our research found
To explore how employer engagement can be leveraged in support of good learner outcomes, the Work Foundation undertook qualitative research with stakeholders across the Further Education landscape.
Our research “Striking a balance:Engaging employers in the skills system to achieve better outcomes for learners“, explored how Further Education colleges currently approach employer engagement and looked ahead to how practice will be shaped by new policy mechanisms.
Colleges approach employer engagement in diverse ways across the spectrum of technical and vocational education, but our research identified key principles that support successful employer engagement:
- Taking a strategic approach to engagement, with deep consultation at a local level to capture a broad range of employer needs
- Staffing and governance arrangements that embed engagement; including college leaders taking up roles on relevant local bodies, and the establishment of teams that provide a direct link to local employers
- Drawing on the respective strengths of training providers and employers
Large firms can overshadow SMEs
The Government White Paper states an intention to follow the same employer-led approach that has been applied in the development of apprenticeship standards. But there are challenges with the ‘trailblazer’ programme. Our research found that larger companies can dominate the system. There is a pressing need for new mechanisms to facilitate engagement with small and micro businesses, and organisations that represent them. Smaller businesses can lack the resources needed to fully engage with the skills system, which makes the need for holistic engagement all the more crucial.
The Government’s skills reform package also includes an overhaul of the funding and accountability measures within Further Education. This is welcome. Our research participants drew attention to the shortcomings of the current system, which all too easily encourage competition over collaboration among colleges within a local area, neither to the benefit of learners or local economies. But in reforming funding and accountability measures, it will be important to avoid incentives being overly focussed on the higher technical level of education at the expense of provision that caters to those further away from employment. Colleges undertake vital work in supporting learners who might face multiple barriers to entering work, including building strong numeracy and language skills. It is vital that the new system incentivises providers to deliver this training, particularly for priority learner groups within an area that requires specific support.
We have developed early recommendations, recognising that there will be a need to fully evaluate emerging policy measures such as Local Skills Improvement Plans and the Strategic Development Fund.
Our research identified key considerations that must be incorporated into the final measures:
- The Local Skills Improvement Plan model must include engagement with small businesses. The establishment of SME/microbusinesses panels could be one method for achieving this but the Department for Education should require evidence of small business engagement in order to approve each Plan
- Employer validation panels for qualifications should include a mandatory and minimum degree of representation of smaller firms
- The Department for Education should develop the planned new skills funding and accountability measures to enable delivery of more specialist training provision, and also include criteria that focuses on the needs of priority groups. To help deliver this, the Skills and Productivity Board should ensure the Skills Fund aligns accountability outcomes and funding with industry priorities, as identified through local SDF need mapping.
- The Skills Fund (a new metric being developed as part of the new accountability measures) should also include a component that measures progress made among identified priority learner groups.
Effective employer engagement has the potential to close skills gaps and provide learners with enhanced opportunities to find good work in their field of study. But for this to really be a new dawn for the skills system, these changes to policy and process will need to deliver meaningful and lasting cultural change.
Competition is deeply ingrained across the skills system. New forms of employer engagement will only succeed through a truly collaborative approach.
This article originally appeared on the website of Further Education News.
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