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The role of the further education sector in meeting the skills gaps

South and City College Birmingham

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce to provide insight on the findings of the Birmingham Economic Review.

The Birmingham Economic Review 2019 is produced by the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, with contributions from the West Midlands Growth Company. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and is a high quality resource for organisations seeking to understand Birmingham to inform research, policy or investment decisions.

This post is featured in the full Birmingham Economic Review 2019 and the Summary Review. These are available here.

Birmingham has a high proportion of unskilled and low skilled workers and, at the same time, a significant skills gap in a number of industries. In addition, many young people are leaving school with no qualifications, adding to the pool of unskilled workers every year. Further, there are language difficulties across many new communities, creating geographical hotspots across different parts of the city and inhibiting employability. The challenges we face are upskilling the population and closing this skills gap so the city can prosper and we can meet the demand for skilled workers that employers need.

Colleges have an exemplary track record of addressing these issues. Every year, we take thousands of school leavers, many with few or no GCSEs and give them an opportunity to achieve their qualifications and meet the needs of employers, in an environment where they are treated as adults but given the support that young people need. Many of our students thrive in that environment and they progress onto higher level qualifications which lead to sustainable jobs and university. We are keen to provide pathways to university and employment for all of our students, regardless of their starting point. A good example is our Foundation Degree in Engineering which allows students who study vocational qualifications to progress into the final year of an academic degree with University of Birmingham.

Colleges also help adult students begin or return to education at any age. Some join us on vocational courses leading to employment, others use our ‘Access to University’ courses as a stepping stone to university, both groups realising that it’s never too late to learn. At South and City College Birmingham, the largest cohort of adult students is on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, where we’re one of the biggest providers in the country. We work on restoring their confidence so they can progress onto our vocational courses and eventually enter employment. Importantly, without English most unemployed people are unemployable.

We also work with young people who are not engaged in education, training or employment to get them back on the right path. For example, our new 12-week ‘Ignite’ programme has been designed for this very purpose – it is focused on working with the Job Centre Plus to identify young people aged 18-24, engaging and mentoring them, finding areas of potential interest and employment, linking them up with employers and giving them basic skills requirements in terms of work ethics, life skills and employability and finally, matching them with job opportunities with employers.

On the other side of the coin, colleges also work with employers to design training programmes and courses that, on completion, can lead to employment in that sector. For example, at South and City College Birmingham, we have successfully developed training programmes for National Express, Worcester Bosch, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust and many more. There are some excellent examples of joined-up working between the college, Jobcentre Plus and employers where the long-term unemployed are given specific job-related training required by employers to enable them to go back to work.

Further, we work with employers to recruit and train apprentices, which is proving a popular route for employers as it allows them to grow a skill base that is matched to their business needs. Some employers also choose to offer apprenticeships to their existing staff as a way of improving their training, whilst others upskill their workforce with other higher level qualifications. Both of these routes are a good way to improve productivity and we have been working with the West Midlands Combined Authority to access funding which allows us to use innovation and flexibility to train and upskill Birmingham’s workforce.

All this good work happens against the background of inadequate funding which has decreased by 30% in real terms, in the last ten years. In addition, the funding arrangements are inappropriate, inflexible and based on long qualifications.  Changes to apprenticeships, which despite supposedly being industry led, are not meeting needs of various sectors. Furthermore, there is a significant lack of communication, coordination and support from other public sector agencies, such as local authorities and the health service. All this has led to a significant reduction in the resources available for teaching and support in the sector. Many colleges are facing financial challenges, which in turn means that we are less able to really equip our people with the skills the country needs to secure prosperity post Brexit. For our city and country to thrive, one thing is clear – the further education sector needs sufficient funding to enable it to make a positive contribution to the economy, our local people and our employers.

Mike Hopkins
Principal, South and City College Birmingham