Colleges link much of their provision directly to employment. They offer courses that are based on the scrutiny of labour market information (LMI) and other intelligence that they glean from employers and policymakers.

It is helpful to maintain a high state of awareness on the progress and future direction of the regional economic system in which they are embedded. College leaders sit on regional planning groups and participate in civic life.

They augment official LMI from the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Education with vital, local intelligence on regional trends.

Colleges are well placed to have both and insight into, and some influence over, local employment. This includes an assessment of the replacement needs of public and other civic services, such as Care. Local skills maintenance is a continuing vital role for FE.

However, Colleges also work with large employers to assess future skills requirements, such as the skills profile for building a windfarm or nuclear power plant. Colleges can also influence and promote local small business specialisms, and entrepreneurs, providing incubator units in, for example, mobile phone technology, or video production.

The introduction of T levels represents a shift to national, standardized provision. This is not entirely helpful as FE needs to be flexible and responsive, and particularly so in the present economic flux brought on by the pandemic.

Although the case for national standards is a strong one, particularly to support geographical mobility, it is also clear that the economy is composed of regional systems, communication corridors and local networks. Colleges need to be able to operate in these economic systems also.

National LMI, as gathered by the ONS/DFE, is essentially backward looking, providing information on the state of affairs that existed when the statistics were collected. COVID has brought about significant and rapid change in future employment expectation, damaging traditional industries, and accelerating the move towards a green economy. Initiatives in devolution, across the four nations and in combined authorities, has reflected the sense on a coherent economic region.

Colleges have, in recent years, strengthened their civic role, as crucial operators in the local skills supply chain. This has been an important factor in the response to COVID. It is essential that colleges scan all available intelligence to spot changing employment needs and future skills shortages in their region.

Colleges have, for example, taken a lead in training engineers for heat pump installation and maintenance, and in expanding digital provision. On the Northeast coast Colleges are working with Siemens to provide the wide range of skills required to establish and maintain a large windfarm.

In Wales a Centre for Advanced materials has been developed– with half an eye on the troubled steel industry. In Northern Ireland, in a ‘statement’ building on a site associated with the ‘troubles’, industrial standard provision for, among others, textile and catering facilities have been created. A college in Scotland has contributed to the revitalisation of the Clyde, becoming a global centre for nautical courses and marine engineering

It is a strength of colleges that they recruit staff from those active in the local economy. These dual professionals are key to establishing and maintaining communities of practice and so maintain a high awareness of developing skills needs and employment patterns.

They are in a strong position to research the character of local business, the interrelated nature of supply chains, and the professional and technical services necessary to support them. It is in this way that economic areas, metropolitan or regional, achieve their distinctive nature, a set of inter-related, networked competencies.

It is helpful to a community that colleges are integrated into civic and local economic structures. From their inception Colleges have reflected regional variation, and develop an ethos that integrates into regional identity, based on a sound reading of the local labour market.

Author: Martin Doel
Following a 28-year career in the Royal Air Force, which culminated in him serving as Director of Training and Education for the Armed Services, Martin Doel joined the Association of Colleges as their Chief Executive in 2008. In this role he worked closely with the government to develop the skills and education policy, and was a member of the Apprenticeship Reform Board. In 2016 he was awarded a CBE for his contribution to further education. He now advises Purlos on building its footprint in the UK Further Education market.
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