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Lessons from the AoC Business Development conference

Businesses want colleges to speak to them in a language they understand, says the Federation of Small Businesses.

That was one of the key messages given to attendees at the recent AcC Business Development Conference by David Pollard, who is both a business owner and chairs the FSB’s Education Skills & Business Support Policy Portfolio.

If it was the only lesson learnt, I believe we could see a boost in the work colleges carry out with SMEs, but there was more.

With more than 180,000 members, myself included, I think it can be argued that the FSB knows a thing or two about the needs of employers and businesses from across a very diverse range of business types.

David’s presentation focused on why relationships with employers are not always good and how they might be improved. But let me focus for a moment on the one that confirmed my own thoughts: jargon.

Having worked in, or for colleges, for more than half my working life I might be expected to understand FE jargon and why businesses are confused. Whenever I turn my back a new initiative seems to appear, with yet another “tranche of jargon”. To make things worse, last year’s initiatives whose jargon I’m learning suddenly disappear.

Think back over the decades to PICKUP (yes I’ve been in FE that long), CoVEs, Train to Gain, the raft of apprenticeship nomenclature over the years (yes, I also recall YTS), the Diploma and, more recently, Traineeships.

If someone like me, and some of the FE staff I work with, find this confusing, then how confusing must this be for employers?

The way forward is simple; just keep the language simple

Most employers don’t really understand Level 1, 2 or 3; and they don’t understand the difference between the now defunct Diploma (or was that The Diploma or the 14-19 Diploma?) and a Traineeship, to name but a few pieces of jargon.

Worse still, employers are often too busy running their businesses to care. A medium-sized engineering company recently told me their solution was to employ well qualified staff from overseas rather than negotiate the FE jargon minefield!

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Sad but true. But this also begs further questions about relationships with employers.

How many colleges recognise the 186,000 membership FSB as a relevant business organisation? How many colleges invite the FSB to hold their meetings at the college, and how many invite the FSB in to speak to students?

And in case you think you don’t know any FSB member businesses, the 157 Group college association is a member.

Funding, outcomes and the real world

Over 120 people attended the conference, which started with AoC’s Teresa Frith discussing the Skills Funding Statement and its impact on business development. She talked about the imperative to work with LEPs and how colleges will be judged on milestones and outcomes; which may not necessarily be qualifications.

This reminds me of the “real world” where my own fee structure often includes milestone payments rather than a fee plucked from a price list or standard day rate. Of course FE has had funding payment milestones for some years but how will it adapt to outcomes rather than qualifications?

Westminster Kingsway’s Andy Wilson focused on “making the best of all we have”. With three restaurants and 18 kitchens, the college has a lot of facilities and it didn’t surprise me to hear that hospitality is one of four client groups on which the college focuses.

The key lesson I took from Andy was the need to be demand led. Of course this isn’t new. We all know it. But in my experience it is often more talked about than practised. As I pointed out to those that attended my own session, if when you go to a business your objective is to convince them to take an apprentice, you are unlikely to hear what they really need. In other words you will not be demand led. You will be product led and college focused.

Of course, if the business is having problems with skill shortages or gaps, the solution might well be an apprentice. But jumping in with the answer before hearing the problem doesn’t endear FE to employers.

One thing we should remember is that “listen” is an anagram of “silent”.

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US – visit: www.ProviderMasterMind.com

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