Developing strong links with employers is a key priority for most FE colleges.

Not only do our students need exposure to the real world of work, but businesses up and down the country have skills gaps to fill and need to create a pipeline of future employees.

When managed effectively, college/employer partnerships are absolutely a win win, with clear benefits for both the business and the students.

If the relationship is too one sided, with either the employer or college feeling that they are gaining little out of it or being ‘used’, it can become a waste of everyone’s time.

How to ensure that any link, project or relationship with an employer is of maximum value all round?

Our digital Career College students have, for the past two years, taken part in an industry project led by the Career Colleges Trust in partnership with Amazon Web Services and a national charity. The value of this project on our students has been immense.

The idea behind this initiative is to give students an insight into a huge international digital business and give them experience of working on a live project, in groups and to a budget. In addition, the involvement of a charity encouraged the students to think in a more inclusive way and inspired many of them to consider the importance of helping other people.

Students from four colleges were this year challenged to design a digital solution to promote physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of young people. With support from the Samaritans and the Career Colleges Trust, our students spent eight weeks working on the project, creating ideas and designs in exactly the same way as would be done in industry.

The project culminated in a final, held at AWS’ offices in London, in which each student group (of between 2 and 8 people) gave a 20 minute presentation to judges from AWS, Career Colleges Trust, Samaritans, London Sport, UK Active and Marylebone Cricket Club. Awards were presented for the best solution, best-run project, best reflection and also to some individual students who had shown particular talent, resilience and/or exceptional attitude.

I was delighted to see a group of our students chosen as overall winners, with their ‘Hope Box’ solution. The group had a genuine desire to give hope to people who may be struggling with mental health issues and this was very much evidenced in their presentation. Another group from our College also won the award for best reflection, a vital part of any project.

The Benefits of Project Work

Being involved in this project has had a huge impact on our students – both in terms of their technical and their employability skills. Working in a group brings an array of challenges that requires skills such as diplomacy and good listening. The designing of the solution itself required students to put much of what they had learnt in the classroom into practice. This required them to think about the application of skills and how the things they are learning on their courses are relevant to real life.

Time management and project / budget planning are also key when working in business. This project required every student to be responsible for themselves and their workload, meeting all the necessary deadlines and working well as a team.

For many of the students, presenting to a room of their peers, judges and industry professionals was the biggest challenge of the entire project. Public speaking is not a skill that comes easily to everyone, but one that is vital in order to progress into both further/higher education and many careers.

I think the students surprised themselves with the incredible solutions they produced – and the fear that many of them overcame in relation to presenting to a room full of people.

Watching the students develop over the eight week period was incredible and reflected the value of pushing young people out of their comfort zone. As an FE college, our job is not only to ensure that the students end up with a qualification, but to ensure that they are equipped with the additional skills they will need to thrive in the workplace.

It can be difficult for young people to make the connection between the theory they learn in a classroom and the application of this theory to real life work – but a project like this one makes this important link.

Every student involved in this project has come away not only with a brilliantly designed digital solution – but they have had the unique experience of visiting AWS’ impressive offices and presenting in front of top industry experts.  This has inspired them all to aim high with their career ambitions, now they now what is out there and that it is all achievable with hard work.

This is not just employer engagement – it is ‘super’ employer engagement. Colleges must be supported and encouraged to provide similar opportunities so that young people and businesses may reap the many benefits.

Kim Caplin, Principal, Westminster Kingsway College

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