“The other trend we’ve seen, unsurprisingly, is massive growth in digital. Demand for training in cyber security, in particular, is hard to keep up with. There’s also growth in the creative industries but aligned again to digital rather than the traditional skills – areas like computer game development, digital animation and computer-aided design.”
Have you also seen a change in the demographic of your applicants?
“We suddenly needed to reshape our business and change focus. From predominantly offering 16-to-19 education and apprenticeships, the amount of work we’re doing with adult learners has grown exponentially.
“The other emerging trend – and I think this will increase once furlough stops – is unemployed people wanting to retrain. We’ve developed Kickstart and other schemes to retrain people in areas where there are huge possibilities for re-employment [the government’s Kickstart Scheme provides funding for employers to create six-month placements for young people on Universal Credit]. The sectors with highest demand are construction, engineering, health, all aspects of digital, and electric vehicle technology.”
How can colleges like Weston support businesses as we emerge from the pandemic into a transformed work landscape?
“FE is about the acquisition of skills. I’ve always said to employers: ‘Just tell me your shopping list, and I’ll tell you how we can work with you.’
“At Weston we don’t do anything ‘off the shelf’; it’s always about what the customer wants. As their work and workplaces were affected by Covid, employers’ shopping lists changed. For example, the port authority asked for bespoke management training and we were able to develop it partly online, partly face to face.
“We’ve become a sort of skills broker, responding to training needs but also helping employers identify and develop these needs. It’s no longer just about supplying what’s on their shopping lists; it’s about helping them construct those lists. For example, employers often forget that an existing employee can become an apprentice to gain new skills.”
As an FE college, what can you offer that other educational institutions can’t?
“A young person coming to a college like Weston gets links with employers and up-to-date industry knowledge. From day one, you’re out on placements and answerable to your employer. You learn about business behaviour and the etiquette of the workplace.
“Covid has made employers, young people and adults more choosy about what they want and the routes to achieve it. We give learners tremendous choice. Someone who wants to be an engineer could go through the A-level route, the vocational route, the T-level route, a traditional apprenticeship, or a degree apprenticeship.
“We do offer traditional degree courses, but we’re seeing a huge upsurge in able learners applying to do apprenticeships. It gives them experience in the job, but they still gain a degree; in fact, they can even gain a PhD, all through the apprenticeship route – and with no debt.”
Are you satisfied with the level of government support and investment in the FE sector?
“FE has been vastly underfunded by government for years, so it’s often seen as the poor relation. But, post Covid, we’re in a different climate for education and employment. The government’s recent Skills for Jobs white paper has set a clear direction with investment in new training routes, and the new Skills Accelerator funding will focus on skills gaps and the importance of digital.
“Weston now has an annual turnover of £67m and we’re working with around 3,000 employers every year. I’m very proud of what our college – and the whole FE sector – can give.”