When her career started, home was a modest red brick pile concealed among the tree-lined streets of Low Fell. Now her office sits in a gleaming fortification alongside the other landmarks of Gateshead’s business and cultural rebirth.
“My predecessors were extremely brave to realise the shift in Gateshead that was happening towards the Quayside and in building this world-class showpiece,” says Judith, who now serves as chief executive and principal of the college.
“I’m a Gateshead girl and was educated here so I feel privileged to lead this college. I’ve seen Gateshead’s rapid transformation in recent years and I’m working with all the strategic partners to continue to make Gateshead the regional centre we want it to be.”
The college’s own transformation extends far beyond its £39m Baltic Business Quarter campus.
The last eight years have seen £80m invested in the institution, expanding it from its former home on Durham Road into a network of six sites covering several key sectors.
“We want our students to be among the most highly prized in the jobs market and we have positioned ourselves as the link with employers of this region to fill their skills needs,” says Judith.
These employers range from small businesses to global giants like Nissan – which relies upon Judith’s team to keep new talent rolling into its world leading Washington plant.
Its relationship with the Japanese giant is a standout success for the college, which trains all the apprentices working at what is one of Europe’s most productive car factories.
“We’ve worked with Nissan for about 10 years and it’s certainly helped to grow our reputation in the manufacturing and technology sectors. Our ability to be flexible and agile to employer needs has been key for us. For example, when Nissan stopped production for a short while during the recession, they decided to use that period for retraining. They needed something up and running very quickly, so we trained all their staff and delivered that in a matter of weeks.”
The college’s Skills Academy for Sustainable Manufacturing and Innovation (SASMI) and Future Technology Centre (FTC) are both based on Nissan’s doorstep on Wearside.
The £4.48m FTC aims to equip the North East with the skills needed to exploit emerging and future low carbon industries and provides world class research facilities and training.
Onsite companies include those pioneering low carbon vehicle charging infrastructure, battery technology and vehicle development. The impact of these technologies on future homes and cities is also being researched and developed.
The centre - and attached test track for low carbon vehicles - is part of the government’s £200m Low Carbon Enterprise Zone, which is expected to create 7,000 new jobs in the region by 2020.
Judith says: “We’re bringing companies together in one very high-spec facility along with the training providers that will give them the skills they need to be successful. We’re seeing mutual benefits from all being in the same place and our students are also benefitting greatly by having the opportunity to get involved in ground-breaking projects.”
Other facilities in the college’s network include its Academy for Sport at Gateshead International Stadium and the Skills Academy for Construction, based on Team Valley.
Sport is a rapid growth area in further education, says Judith, and the college’s expertise in the sector has taken it as far afield as Malaysia, where it runs a leisure facility and training centre.
Its construction sector focus includes much more than mere bricks and mortar, although traditional skills in high demand, like plumbing, electrical installations and plastering are catered for. But so too are the new skills needed amid the rise of low carbon-centred construction, with training covering areas such as solar photovoltaics, rainwater harvesting, smart housing, heat pumps and biomass.
In all of the college’s endeavours, however, Judith says a common, underlying goal exists.
“We are the college that gets people into work,” she says. “We want to empower people and give them the skills they need to have a prosperous future.”
This approach, and the college’s industry specialisms, are aligned to what the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is aiming to achieve, Judith adds.
“We’re seen by the LEP as an organisation which is delivering on its priority of ‘more and better jobs’. We’re delivering what the region and the government is asking us to.”
The college’s work to boost the employability of its students comes in many different guises. While in one pocket of its vast estate there could be a bespoke course upskilling the recently redundant, in another classroom, supermarket recruits could be preparing for their new shop-floor careers.
In fact Tesco recently enlisted the college to train the scores of workers who now staff its new flagship store in central Gateshead. Overall Judith estimates there could be as many as 20,000 people, including 3,000 full-time students, being trained at the college annually.
“We have to meet the very specific needs of individual businesses and that can involve mass customisation. It’s about ensuring we deal with large-scale work in a bespoke manner.”
Across Gateshead College’s various departments, says Judith, entrepreneurial skills are embedded into course modules.
Gateshead is also one of five founding members of Gazelle Colleges – formed in 2011 with the aim of developing entrepreneurial attributes within education.
However, the college has resisted the temptation to follow the growing number of education providers now teaching entrepreneurialism as a discipline in its own right.
“Some people inherently have entrepreneurial characteristics like being tenacious self-starters who take risks and to some degree entrepreneurialism can be taught,” she says.
“But we don’t say ‘here’s a course to help you be an entrepreneur’. We’re more subtle than that, by making sure all our courses have elements of entrepreneurialism running through them. We also expose our students to as many entrepreneurs as possible.
“Employers want entrepreneurial people and I want all my students to be prosperous when they leave, whether they become employers or employees.”
And Judith has shown her own entrepreneurial spirit in helping to drive the college’s ongoing transformation.
She became chief executive – and the first female principal in the college’s history – in July 2013. This came after four years as deputy principal and a mere 27 years after she first joined as an English lecturer, having also trained at the college.
The biggest challenge in her current the role has been “getting everyone to think about the future and to understand the changing world we live in”. She adds: “It’s about getting staff to think differently, work differently and to make sure we’re not just like every other college.”
Judith considers herself leader of a “complex business which happens to be in education”, rather than a college. “We function successfully that way and also gain credibility and the respect of other businesses as a consequence,” she says. “Much of my time is spent in the business community with other CEOs and business leaders helping them understand the part we can play in supporting the needs of their business.”
Backing the chief executive at the helm of the £46m-a-year turnover business is a board of governors representing the public sector and a number of major employers – including Virgin Money and Northumbrian Water.
“The board is so attuned to the modern business world and to that prosperous future that we want the college to be part of,” says Judith. And she believes direction from the boardroom and the quality of the college’s 700+ workforce, has positioned it well for future growth.
“We’ve grown our turnover in the last five years by around 30% which has come through increasing student numbers and our commercial activities. We are looking to develop our estate and we’re always on the lookout for new business opportunities which add value to the college. But I always ask how it fits with our mission of getting people into work.”