Iain Nixon is Sunderland College’s first commercial director, a post created - he tells me - in recognition of the organisation’s need to be more outward looking and engaged with business.
Before he took the job he worked with the college as a consultant to develop its employer engagement strategy. “Essentially, I’ve now got the challenge of eating my own words,’’ he laughs. “My job is implementing that strategy.’’
He says that Sunderland College has been engaging with employers over a number of years but in a low profile way and without directing significant resources to that activity.
The first element of the strategy is to reposition the college. “To ensure that we are aligned to local and regional economic development and skills priorities,’’ he explains. “The bottom line is that we are meeting the needs of the growing industry sectors in the North East and all those sectors which provide significant employment but aren’t necessarily growing.
Within that, first and foremost our priority is to meet the skills needs of the City of Sunderland but we are also a regional college and we reach well beyond the city’s boundaries".
The college also aims to build its reputation and that of the work it does. Nixon says: “Ultimately, what we want to be seen as is as a trusted partner of employers.’’ He adds: “The college was engaging with employers but it didn’t have a view on who it was engaging with or how many employers it was engaging with in which sectors. It had never been pulled together in any coherent fashion.’’
He is clear that the college cannot be seen as “all things to all people’’ but must develop a well-targeted offer and so it plans to focus on a number of key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, including subsectors such as automotive; digital and media; construction; health and social care; and professional business services. These areas coincide with the City Council’s economic master plan and the LEP’s strategic plan.
Advanced Manufacturing is expected to grow in the Sunderland area, particularly with the development of the International Advanced Manufacturing Park.
Digital and media embraces not just IT but also the creative side of media and the interaction between the two and is an important sector with the growth of Sunderland Software City.
Investment in construction has declined in the downturn but is now starting to pick up. There is a new focus on sustainable construction which the college aims to train for. “It might be traditional trades but it’s now about looking at how technology is being applied to the construction industry, including renewable energy,’’ says Nixon.
“The college was the first in the North East region to establish a centre for renewable energy to provide skills training in that area, so we’ve got a track record there, we just need to make more of it.’’
Health and social care extends beyond the public sector and Nixon argues that, with the ageing population, it is a growing sector and it is seeing increasing numbers of apprenticeships.
Professional business services includes contact centres, which have been a specialism of Sunderland College for several years and which provides significant and growing employment in the North East.
“We need to ensure that our offer now, but also into the future, is aligned with those key sectors,’’ says Nixon. “That’s not to say we won’t work with other sectors but it’s where we are going to direct our efforts and develop our specialisms.
“Out of those three things – meeting local and regional economic development and skills priorities; raising the profile and reputation of the college; developing and delivering a well-targeted employer facing offer – what we’ll hopefully see out of that is increased revenue for the college which will enable us to diversify our income streams, which is critical for the college.’’
The college offers qualifications ranging from NVQ Level 1 provision through to Level 4 and 5, equivalent to a foundation degree. It offers an academic education through its sixth form and A-Level provision and some 14-to-16 teaching. Currently, it is also training just over 1,000 apprentices – young people and adults - across a range of different occupational areas.
In advanced manufacturing, for example, in 2013/14, the college had 398 16-to-18 year old learners, 493 adults doing vocational courses, 192 apprentices and 131 higher education learners doing HNCs and HNDs.
“So, there are a significant number of 16-to-18 year olds who are making a conscious decision to take a vocational route on a full time basis, and their route into work afterwards may well be through an apprenticeship but they may secure a job in an organisation without it being an apprenticeship,’’ says Nixon.
“Our apprenticeship provision is growing and this year, to date, we have seen a 30% increase in the number of new starts.’’
A “significant proportion’’ of the college’s vocational learners have work placements.
“We are looking at trying to find somewhere in the order of about 1,500, if not 2,000 work experience opportunities just for this academic year,’’ he says.
The college’s catchment area is Sunderland and its surrounding areas. Would it consider, like South Tyneside College with its famous South Shields Marine School, looking at developing specialisms appealing to a wider catchment area?
“One of the things we are looking at moving forward is: what are we famous for? That’s why we have this focus on key sectors so that we become well known for meeting the skills needs of businesses within those sectors and become known as that trusted partner. It also gives us an opportunity to develop a real niche.’’
He cites advanced manufacturing as an example. The college is in the process of building its new £29m city centre campus, which will take the provision currently provided by its Hylton Campus and which will have state-of-the-art engineering facilities. “We are doing horizon-scanning to look at what the needs are likely to be in the future, particularly with the International Advanced Manufacturing Park coming along,’’ says Nixon.
This also reflects the college’s new emphasis on the needs of employers. He says: “Part of the way in which we are turning things on their head – and this is a gross generalisation about further education – for a long time it has been learner led, so an individual might have in interest in horticulture so they go and study horticulture but there may not be, at the end of the day, many jobs in horticulture, so we might be over-supplying that particular sector with learners.
“We need to get that balance right, so our engagement with employers is to ensure we understand what their needs are and that we come forward with solutions that meet those needs. This isn’t about selling an apprentice or selling a course that we just happen to offer. What we want to do is understand that business, where it’s going to, and what its challenges are particularly with respect to its workforce.’’
Sunderland College has also developed a Stem strategy which has helped it to identify a number of cluster areas in which it could develop a niche focused on meeting other industry needs by offering other services.
Nixon explains: “My argument is that we have staff and students who have expertise and we have leading edge facilities.’’
These can be used not only for teaching young people but also for continued professional development of people who are already in work, the college could also provide accreditation for businesses’ in-house training and help with recruitment.
“We are never going to be doing blue sky research, we are never going to be at the far end of the innovation spectrum but we can provide other innovation related services to business such as near market research, we could be providing access to some of our facilities such as 3D printing or CAD software,’’ says Nixon.
Some of the college’s students, for example, are working with the Durham Marriott hotel on developing an app that waiters can use to give customers more information about items on the menu.
Nixon says: “That’s providing great experience and also meeting a business need.
Sunderland College fact file