Carol Turnbull, principal at Dumfries & Galloway College
Carol Turnbull, principal at Dumfries & Galloway College, takes BQ Scotland behind-the-scenes to demonstrate how her institution is working with industry to train the next generation of workers.
It’s not unusual for further education colleges to have their own catering kitchens and hair-dressing salons from which their students can practice offering the public tasty food and a short back-and-sides. Dumfries & Galloway College has gone a step further though.
The institution has erected electricity distribution grid poles in its grounds and even has a mini wind turbine to help prepare its students for careers in the renewable energy and wider power industry. The unusual pieces of apparatus outside the buildings are just two of the examples of how the college is interacting with businesses to help provide the skilled workers that they need.
“The overhead lines technician programme came about because we were approached by a contractor that had been appointed by Scottish Power to deliver in the area and which recognised that it had a skills shortage,” explains Carol Turnbull, principal at Dumfries & Galloway College. “We invited the contractor to come in and talk to us and, over time, we developed a partnership with Scottish Power Energy Network (SPEN), with the CIET – which was the name of the contractor at the time – the Energy Skills Partnership and Skills Development Scotland (SDS).
“Between us, we developed an intensive 12-week programme that involved learning in college and being outside. We put up telegraph poles so they could do the field work as well.
“Scottish Power provided a trainer for the fieldwork to teach the students how to climb the poles. They covered the practical elements and we covered the theory elements.
“Over a period of time, we developed that into a qualification that also included some of the on-site training as well, so it would be possible for the students to get a full on-site certificate. We also helped to train some of the company staff so they became on-site assessors.
“That expanded into working with other contractors that were appointed by Scottish Power Energy Networks too. Recently, we’ve been working with SPIE contractors.”
At the time, SDS ran an energy skills fund, which supported some of the costs of delivering the course. If participants gave up a job to go on the course then the fund was able to give them some support.
“That was one of the biggest problems we had,” Turnbull remembers. “They wanted people who were qualified to a certain level and a lot of people were attracted to the industry because of the salary, but it meant them giving up a current job and there could potentially be 12 weeks during which they wouldn’t be employed.
“We got some funding towards that for a couple of years and, although they weren’t guaranteed a job at the end of it, they were guaranteed an interview. The company was part of the recruitment and selection process right from the word go, so if participants completed the course successfully then they had a very strong chance of getting a job at the end of it.
“The company met with the trainees every fortnight. I think that was the key to the success – the company was involved right from the start, designing the course, selecting the students, providing ongoing monitoring and feedback, and then the trainees were taken on at the end of it.”
Turnbull thinks that the process that was used to create the course could be replicated for other industries. The overhead lines technician programme isn’t the only interaction the college has had with the power sector either. The college developed a wind turbine technician course with Ayr College and the Energy Skills Partnership, a collaboration between 23 Scottish further education colleges and players from industry.
“Again, that course was developed with industry and we were given a small-scale wind turbine on which students could work,” Turnbull says. “That was developed as a full-time course and that’s the way we deliver it now. The successful achievers from the course tend to go into jobs quite easily.”
The college’s close links with businesses extend far beyond the power industry. The institution worked with Dumfries & Galloway Council and NHS Dumfries & Galloway to develop a course for the care sector.
“It’s an upskilling course that gives care workers the skills to support people to become more able again in their own homes – hence the title ‘Re-enablement’,” Turnbull explains. “That was developed for a local market but we took it through accreditation by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and that’s now been rolled out across the whole of Scotland.
“It’s very satisfying when that happens. It’s nice for a small college like us to be the first to deliver a course but it also feels good to know that we’re supporting local employers and students to get employment, which is what we’re all about.”
Dumfries & Galloway College is the second-smallest further education institution in Scotland, with around 1,500 full-time students, most of whom are based in Dumfries, with some 230 studying at the Stranraer campus. The college also has a further 4,000 part-time learners, highlighting its commitment to offering local people the chance to study in a way that suits the rest of their lives, fitting in with their jobs or family obligations.
The part-time students take a broad range of courses, from half a day each week through to online courses, for which they never physically visit the college. The open-learning courses are used by people based both outside and within the local area, including inmates at the local prison.
The college’s work with industry takes many forms. It invites employers to join advisory boards in its different curriculum areas, which involves companies becoming engaged in the design of courses to make sure they fit their needs and also going into the college to deliver guest talks or inviting students out to their premises for site visits or work placements.
If companies want to recruit people into their area then the college can also offer help. Work placements offer the opportunity to “try before you buy” and are becoming increasingly popular with employers.
Turnbull encourages other businesses to get in touch with her, whether it’s to become involved in designing courses, recruiting students or sharing their experience with staff and with students. “Just pick up the phone,” she says. “Come and talk to me.”
The principal herself has personal experience of the benefits that a college education can bring. Her career has turned her into a strong advocate for further education.
“My father was in the army and we had been living in England,” she recalls. “He got posted up to Longtown in Cumbria just as I was 16 and getting ready to go to sixth-form college.
“They decided to buy a house in Dumfries and I moved up with them. I couldn’t understand the Scottish education system at all so I decided to leave school and go to work.
“I had loads of jobs. I ran a small hotel out in the country – I had no experience, by the way – I was a gym instructor for a while, I started doing a nursing course, but didn’t quite finish it. I was just one of these people who didn’t know what I wanted to do and just drifted around.
“After I turned 20, I decided I should go and get some qualifications so I went to Dumfries & Galloway College and did a higher national diploma (HND) in business and then went out and worked in the dairy industry, before coming back as a lecturer, completing a master’s degree in management studies, doing various jobs in the college and then five years ago ending up as principal.
“I am absolutely a product of further education and Dumfries & Galloway is my passion. I know the people, I know the area, I know the businesses and I totally believe in further education and that it can deliver so much for people – definitely second chances, if you want to call them that, but also I believe it’s a real alternative to university because of the vocational aspects of it.”
Turnbull wants to see more work-based learning involved in skills training. She also believes flexibility is key. “Some learners want part-time, some want full-time, some come with the prior learning but not the qualifications,” she points out. “The system has to be flexible and adaptable to suit all kinds of learners, and also needs to suit employers’ needs as well.
“Dumfries and Galloway has a lot of positive aspects as a region – the tourism industry is growing and the energy sector is an important emerging economic factor – however, it currently has a low-wage economy and there are pockets of rural deprivation. Our members of staff at the college want to make a difference to our area. They care about their students.
“We are the only college in the region and so we’re a key player. I’m very conscious that we need to work through partnerships and collaborations and that’s something that I enjoy doing. Whether it’s with the employers or the schools or the universities, it’s all about partnership working.”