Dawn Leak tells Mike Hughes how the Bradford College Group is leading the way in proving that collaboration is the key to bridging the skills gap.
There is hard work from every quarter to make sure the Yorkshire skills gap becomes a thing of the past.
The students are making their voices clear as they sign up for different courses, the educators are swift to react to any opportunities to update their curriculum and the employers are being innovative as they expand and are crying out for people to master the latest technology. Stretching over all that is the essential element to make all that effort pay off – collaboration. Working in silos and being pleased about one part of that chain is pointless if it doesn’t lead to our young people getting long-term sustainable jobs.
Bradford College is showing the way by building its own collaborative model in the Bradford College Group, made up of educators, trainers and industry experts. By working seamlessly together at the very early stages of a student’s time in education, the group has done much of the hard work in moulding people ready for work and keenly aware of the employment landscape stretching out in front of them.
The group’s component parts – developed over the last few years as a result of the expansion of Bradford College and the changes in the economy, employment and policy environment – are a microcosm of the wider regional picture.
At the core there is the college itself, providing FE and HE to more than 20,000 students, and the Bradford College Education Trust which sponsors two academies. They work hand in glove with City Training Services, a successful apprenticeship provider, and Beacon Recruitment, an employment and placement agency.
Backing up all that firepower is Inprint + Design, an expanding commercial design and print company jointly owned by the college and the University of Bradford, and The Apprenticeship Training Agency jointly owned with Bradford Metropolitan District Council.
That influential combination gives the group the strength to build the most constructive relationships with businesses, and now Dawn Leak – the group’s director of employer responsiveness (ER) – is working across every level of the college to make sure a pioneering ER strategy is embedded at every stage.
“We are deeply rooted in training the young people of Yorkshire, right back to the days when the college started as a textile training centre for that booming sector. That is a proud heritage for us and is the foundation of the work we do today,” says Leak. “The group structure that is proving so successful was formed only a few years ago to give us the flexibility and responsiveness organisations like us need to react to such a diverse employment market and the varying needs of those that we serve.
“Our focus now is on the college’s three divisions: FE, HE and now ER, which is all things employer and commercial facing. All three working together means we can cover the full scope of learning from all ages and all communities and then have employer engagement running through it all.
“Collaboration is the future of our battle to bridge the skills gap, whether that is within or outside the group because we will all have so much more effect if we work together, as we do with the West Yorkshire Consortium of Colleges, which provides a collective bidding opportunity to tap into the strengths we have across the region.”
Those on the front line of that battle see a path forwards from crisis to challenge and then on to solution and, like Leak, they appreciate the urgency of getting to that second stage quickly so that the third remains achievable.
“The skills situation is permanently on our radar as a priority for the LEP and the Combined Authority, and their hard work means the college can benefit from plenty of data and see what is on the horizon and match the learning to the skills that will be required for the next five, ten or fifteen years,” says Leak. “That skills-matching is easier in some sectors than others, with particular challenges coming from engineering which is facing an ageing workforce, health needing staff across all areas from care workers to doctors, and then the digital and IT sector which is the newest of them all and needs breakthrough technical skills in place.
“Requirements are changing so fast that even if you look back two years the kind of digital apprenticeships being delivered were completely different because the sector has evolved into so many mini-industries within IT, all needing a separate set of skills. But students and businesses, wherever they are based and in whichever sector, can trust that we are getting on with the job and filling those gaps.”
For the Bradford College Group, that end link in the skills chain, working with businesses to offer careers rather than drop-in and drop-out jobs, is the result of many years of experience and an earned respect from industries keen to become part of a reliable staffing and expertise pipeline that can tackle short-term issues as well as offering long-term benefits for the regional economy.
Leak tells me: “We have connections with about 3,000 employers across West Yorkshire and of those we actively work with about 1,200 every year, not just as employers but as ambassadors who support our awards and are on our sector groups. With that depth of involvement comes the insight we need to know how to design what employers need for the future.
“With their help, we are able to plan on a three-to-five year cycle, so that when one year is done, we are already well into the pipeline for the next and then on to the one after that. We don’t even know what some of those skills will be yet, which shows how fast technology is advancing, but by looking at the prospects together, we can be prepared for change and can react more quickly to help those people we are working with benefit from every opportunity.
“We have to be in a position to get courses designed to meet new needs, find the right people to teach it and then line up the input of students that employers need. For us, the partnerships we build are ones of co-creation and co-investment which means that very few of the courses we can offer here will be launched without significant collaboration with employers.”
That is the key part of Leak’s role here, heading up the ER division and working with stakeholders at all levels including a marketing and internal and external comms role to get that message out, that the Bradford College Group is the place to start your enquiries, whether you are a jobseeker or a headhunter. Communicating is an increasingly important skill in itself, and the college is experienced in offering events to involve as many organisations as possible, and it is no surprise that Brexit has been a recent theme there, with training and skills organisations needing to be at their best to deal with uncertainties and changes of direction from affected employers. Working with a trusted host who can arrange meetings, networking and discussions has the potential to make a big difference.
To further enhance that influence, the college is also a patron of the Yorkshire Enterprise Network which has more than 3,000 members and provides another marketplace to exchange best practice through a variety of promotional opportunities for members, including forums, presentations and exhibitions.
But as Leak says: “All of that hard work has to be centred around an individual student and getting to know him or her and what they want and what their potential is. Irrespective of what kind of student they are, there have to be levels of enrichment and employability skills to match because we know that it is one thing teaching a subject to someone and quite another for that person to then function well in a workplace. As well as the pure skills, we have to bring out a resilience, flexibility and adaptability so that they become a perfect fit for employers.
“We will build all those into tutorials, activities and events as well as taking them out to premises and letting them experience problem-solving and interview skills so that the people who leave Bradford College are rounded and are equipped to move quickly to the next level in the industries we have identified as the most fast-growing and capable of more job creation.
“At the moment these include construction now that it has recovered from the recession and is seeing significant growth, not only in the traditional trades, but in the wider infrastructure such as conveyancing and project managers which demand those personal and leadership skills we can help develop.
“Health and Science is another strong sector with jobs in meditech and ophthalmics and in dentistry which we are supporting in our new Dental School. That is an investment of £500,000 which happened because we saw the way a relatively niche sector was starting to develop into a potentially major employer.
“I spend around 40% of my time establishing skills and needs so we know what is coming next. I meet employers, go to conferences and gather as much intelligence as I can from many different sources to find the next destination on the map.
That involvement across Yorkshire means our influence and responsibilities are to the wider region as well as the college campus and I know from my own experience that the region is working hard to pull together and collaborate.
“Of course, each college within the region has got its own specific measures and outcomes to meet as part of the West Yorkshire Delivery Agreement, part of a plan to align college training provision with the needs of the Leeds City Region economy, but we can also work much closer together finding a clear strategy, including a way of explaining issues like the Apprenticeship Levy, which has confused many employers who need to know how it can help and what they can do with it.”
At the other end of the timeline, the college’s Student Outreach Team works with pupils in their early teens who may not have started considering their career options. What the team is finding is that more schools now want that engagement to be with the parents as well, to make sure everyone sees the wide range of possibilities where this next generation of Yorkshire wage-earners could make their mark and whether it is higher education, apprenticeships or whatever route that offers the best solution for each individual. Knowing the route as well as the destination can be a vital step forward with so many young people competing for jobs.
“It is challenging for us and for them, there’s no doubt about that, but I can see progress all the time and that is inspiring us to push further and further,” says Leak. “We made a strategic decision a couple of years ago that ER was the way ahead and that a division focused on employers’ needs would be a huge benefit for everyone involved in the skills chain and merited an enormous amount of work and a significant investment – this year alone we have brought in 17 new programmes.
“We will always be involved in whatever the next challenge is for employers and young workers, and I find that level of influence exciting and rewarding as Employer Responsiveness seeks to seal that gap in the middle of the skills pipeline.
“I would say to any employer – if that is a new firm setting out and needing new staff in an emerging technology or an existing firm wanting to expand – talk to us first. If they have an existing strategy, we can help them fulfil it, and if they need help drawing up a plan, we know how to do that and can point them towards funding pots and other groups who can support them.”
That level of commitment also applies to every young man or woman who decides that Great Horton Road is where they want to start looking for a career. It can be one of the most challenging and bewildering times of their young lives, but such personal care given to each of them and the tailor-made support the college will have for them can make a life-changing difference and ensure more highly skilled and motivated young people become part of the region’s bright future.
Leaders are never too old to learn
As well as opening up every possible opportunity for young people to gain experience of the industries they will be moving into to make them ideal candidates, Bradford College also works with experienced workers who need to refresh their skills, or even try new ones if they have decided on a change in direction.
With more than 20,000 students, it has delivered Further and Higher education and training for more than 180 years and is one of the biggest FE colleges in the country and one of the largest providers of HE outside of the university sector.
For businesses wanting to upskill their staff, the college currently offers three management apprenticeships: for Team Leaders and Supervisors, for Associate Project Managers and for Operations and Departmental Managers. Each is tailored for specific needs to make sure those new skills can be sent back into the workplace with the most precise targeting.
For those with leadership on their minds, the Level 3 Team Leaders and Supervisors apprenticeship is aimed at aspiring professionals taking their first step into line management as well as those with some experience of managing a team, process or project, whether they are professional team leaders, first line managers or supervisors from any sector and any size of organisation. The college wants to have a long-term impact on the businesses it deals with and sees the importance of developing a range of essential management skills in a real working environment, so that future leaders can then have the capability to motivate teams and influence performance and growth.
The entry requirements for Level 3 are 4 GCSEs grades 9-4 (A* - C) including English and Maths.
An associate project manager has a different role, directly responsible for what needs to be achieved, how it will be achieved, how long it will take and how much it will cost. This apprenticeship helps them work with a project team to achieve the required outcomes within different contexts and across diverse industry sectors.
The entry requirements for Level 5 are 5 GCSEs grades 9-4 (A* - C) including English and Maths
The Operations/Departmental Manager apprenticeship is ideal for individuals who manage teams or projects and are responsible for achieving operational or departmental goals and objectives as part of their organisation’s strategy. Level 5 managers are responsible for everything from creating and delivering operational plans, managing projects, and leading and managing teams, to managing change, financial and resource management. At Bradford, they can develop an ability to lead, motivate and inspire to drive better results.
The entry requirements for Level 5 are 5 GCSEs grades 9-4 (A* - C) including English and Maths.
Great way to build a team
The reputation of the Bradford College Group along the skills pipeline, which stretches from one side of Yorkshire to the other, is backed up by hard evidence and a county-wide band of supporters who recognise the difference that can be made to their businesses.
These supporters include Nikki Cohen, one of the owners of the Pharm-Assist Healthcare group of Yorkshire pharmacies. The group was established 20 years ago and has grown to become one of the UK’s leading introductory services in the sector. This small family business’s sole area of work is providing pharmacy staff, with each registered locum allocated their own personal co-ordinator to find the most suitable positions.
Pharm-Assist employs a number of Level 2 and 3 apprentices from City Training Services, part of the Bradford College Group, and Nikki says the adaptability of the apprentices, who see themselves as part of a team working to find them careers, has brought a new dimension to the company.
She said: “It means we can train in our own way these young people who come into our business with no prior experience and show them how we do things at the same time as giving them a good opportunity to learn and develop. It is such a bonus to get an extra pair of eyes and an extra pair of hands with someone who will muck in and be part of our team.”
Nikki says the first incentive to take on an apprentice was the financial support from the Government, which meant it was an economically sound way of bringing in new staff.
“We then started interviewing students and taking them on and I quickly realised that young people were going to be the route to our succession planning throughout the business because as they come through many of them have stayed on so that there is now one member of staff in each of our pharmacies who started out as an apprentice. It is a great way of building a team and bringing in new blood.”
City Training Services start helping firms like Pharm-Assist in the recruitment process by identifying applicants who not only have the right qualifications, but also the right attitude and potential for each business. They will then monitor the progress to make sure apprentice and employer both get the most out of the experience and follow that all up back at the college so that a placement becomes the first step in a new career.