Nervously, I bring my fingers to the keyboard to write my first column for FE News. I am reminded of the first time I spoke in public and the nerves around self-belief, "does anything I have to say matter to anyone out there"?
For sure, I am a passionate communicator. Speaking from experience and having a determination to contribute makes a difference. I am now standing naked (metaphorically) in front of all you readers seeking to add some thoughts from a newcomer!
To provide some context, in 1998 I took my first leap into being an 'entrepreneur' and started a business with my husband Thomas. We created an online social network for business owners called Ecademy. The next network of its kind was LinkedIn, which started in 2002, so we were early to market, starting four years before. This gave us a head-start in understanding how communities grew and how digital could impact the prosperity of businesses, providing – and I want to emphasise this point – 'providing they engaged and got involved in the community'. Ecademy grew into a global network very quickly and the development of blogging, groups and event management by its members gave us the insight into the power of digital to scale and serve a sector.
95% of the UK business population has fewer than nine employees. In fact, only 7,000 companies employ more than 250 people. A shocking fact. My mission has been to assist the non-digital sector – the company that does not have digital at the heart of their product or delivery – evolve their admin, marketing and IT into the digital age. My experience with the FE Sector began in late 2011 when I founded the Digital Youth Academy. The Board of Directors and I decided that the best way to help SMEs across the UK was to provide them with a new Apprenticeship. So, we developed the Social Digital Apprenticeship.
It has been an amazing experience moving into this sector. The warmth of many Principals and leaders has been quite overwhelming. The desire to embrace an 'entrepreneur' and the digital agenda has been excellent. Thanks go to The Gazelle Group, Lynne Sedgmore CBE of 157 Group, Dr Ann Limb OBE, Sally Dickets CBE, Signe Sutherland, the Association of Colleges for asking me to Chair the Enterprise Day at their AoC Connect Conference in June 2012 and to Lindsay McCurdy of Apprenticeships4England for asking me to chair day two of this year's Voice of Apprenticeships Conference. I have been welcomed and that is amazing, thank you.
My opinions are now forming. I cannot have opinions unless they are formed from my own direct experience. Now, three years on, feel I am allowed them. I have invested a great deal of time in understanding some of the issues that the FE Sector faces. The Chair of the Enterprise M3 LEP, Geoff French, told me that my job is to suggest new solutions. This is certainly a time of change and I like that. I respect the amazing work being done under so many challenges in funding, skills and resources and of course the constant reminder that the FE Sector must engage better with the local business communities.
So, now onto the subject that fascinates me, not just in the FE Sector, but across all sectors – the term 'engagement'. It seems to have replaced the terms 'marketing' and 'sales', and I guess this is a healthy switch as it's the one from broadcasting to listening, sharing, collaborating and involving ourselves in one another's lives. I can see that this level of skill and commitment to the new 'social world' varies enormously across the Sector. It must start with the Principals and leaders as leadership in this socially engaged world is critical.
We need to know what the issue is, why it matters and what can be done about it. The issue is clear. Youth employment is high, yet companies are saying they cannot find the skills they need. It matters because both these parties are key stakeholders in the economy and both have so much to offer the other. What can be done? Well, we could become more tactical and less strategic about the way we approach this issue. Like you, like many, I am tired of the 'discussions about the issues'. I have full belief that everyone knows it matters, so let's get on with doing something about it.
I hope this column serves and supports you, in my next column I will share some of my ideas and the journey I have undertaken to help with this issue.
Penny Power is founder of the Digital Youth Academy