Business management

Further education and the post-Covid workforce

We hear from Dr Paul Phillips CBE of Weston College in Somerset about how colleges like his can help businesses access the skills they need to thrive in a post-pandemic marketplace.

Dr Paul Phillips CBE has been principal of the award-winning Weston College of further and higher education in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, since 2001. We asked him how and why the pandemic has transformed working practices and educational opportunities across the further education (FE) sector.

How did the pandemic change the way you work?

“It was a catalyst for change. Rather than 10% of our activity being digital learning, suddenly 90% of it was. You can’t beat face-to-face learning, but if you can combine face-to-face effectively with an element of virtual it can be highly effective.

“The move to more virtual learning is giving some employees already working in a sector the opportunity to gain new skills in a more flexible way. And when employers are choosing a college to work with, geography is now less of a factor than wanting the top provider.”

How else did you change your offering to students and employers?

“We created My Virtual College, a portal on the college website where our learners, staff and employers can communicate, post work and share best practice. It was an experiment that took off massively.

“Another new initiative is Let’s Chat, which provides mental health and well-being support. This has been particularly successful in our apprenticeship provision with employers like the Ministry of Defence, GKN Aerospace and Rolls-Royce. After the successful roll-out in our own college community, we extended it in a pilot project with Gateshead College in Tyne and Wear.

“Let’s Chat also helped us win the Association of Colleges’ Beacon Inclusive Learning Leadership Award for creating outstanding results for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).”

How do you support people who have previously faced barriers to education?

“It’s important to me that anyone who comes to study at Weston can realise their ambitions. For people with learning difficulties and disabilities, there’s a risk of either not giving enough support or mollycoddling them. At Weston, we give them the intrinsic support they need for progression to university or employment.

“When lockdown started, we gave all our students with learning difficulties and disabilities the option of coming into college safely. We also delivered 500 refurbished computers to learners’ homes, along with dongles for internet access, and created virtual links between the college, students and parents so learners could mix and match face-to-face and online learning.

“We often take people who’ve previously had bad experiences in education, supporting them to gain qualifications and enter employment. For example, we deliver work in prisons across the South.”

Have you noticed a change in the types of courses people are applying for?

“Covid has created phenomenal interest in the NHS and healthcare careers. We’re seeing huge demand in people wanting to go into nursing or gain advanced practitioner status, and the government recently announced a new apprenticeship route to becoming an NHS GP.

We’ve become a sort of skills broker, responding to training needs but also helping employers identify and develop these needs. It’s no longer just about supplying what’s on their shopping lists; it’s about helping them construct those lists

Dr Paul Phillips CBE
Principal and chief executive, Weston College

“The other trend we’ve seen, unsurprisingly, is massive growth in digital. Demand for training in cyber security, in particular, is hard to keep up with. There’s also growth in the creative industries but aligned again to digital rather than the traditional skills – areas like computer game development, digital animation and computer-aided design.”

Have you also seen a change in the demographic of your applicants?

“We suddenly needed to reshape our business and change focus. From predominantly offering 16-to-19 education and apprenticeships, the amount of work we’re doing with adult learners has grown exponentially.

“The other emerging trend – and I think this will increase once furlough stops – is unemployed people wanting to retrain. We’ve developed Kickstart and other schemes to retrain people in areas where there are huge possibilities for re-employment [the government’s Kickstart Scheme provides funding for employers to create six-month placements for young people on Universal Credit]. The sectors with highest demand are construction, engineering, health, all aspects of digital, and electric vehicle technology.”

How can colleges like Weston support businesses as we emerge from the pandemic into a transformed work landscape?

“FE is about the acquisition of skills. I’ve always said to employers: ‘Just tell me your shopping list, and I’ll tell you how we can work with you.’

“At Weston we don’t do anything ‘off the shelf’; it’s always about what the customer wants. As their work and workplaces were affected by Covid, employers’ shopping lists changed. For example, the port authority asked for bespoke management training and we were able to develop it partly online, partly face to face.

“We’ve become a sort of skills broker, responding to training needs but also helping employers identify and develop these needs. It’s no longer just about supplying what’s on their shopping lists; it’s about helping them construct those lists. For example, employers often forget that an existing employee can become an apprentice to gain new skills.”

As an FE college, what can you offer that other educational institutions can’t?

“A young person coming to a college like Weston gets links with employers and up-to-date industry knowledge. From day one, you’re out on placements and answerable to your employer. You learn about business behaviour and the etiquette of the workplace.

“Covid has made employers, young people and adults more choosy about what they want and the routes to achieve it. We give learners tremendous choice. Someone who wants to be an engineer could go through the A-level route, the vocational route, the T-level route, a traditional apprenticeship, or a degree apprenticeship.

“We do offer traditional degree courses, but we’re seeing a huge upsurge in able learners applying to do apprenticeships. It gives them experience in the job, but they still gain a degree; in fact, they can even gain a PhD, all through the apprenticeship route – and with no debt.”

Are you satisfied with the level of government support and investment in the FE sector?

“FE has been vastly underfunded by government for years, so it’s often seen as the poor relation. But, post Covid, we’re in a different climate for education and employment. The government’s recent Skills for Jobs white paper has set a clear direction with investment in new training routes, and the new Skills Accelerator funding will focus on skills gaps and the importance of digital.

“Weston now has an annual turnover of £67m and we’re working with around 3,000 employers every year. I’m very proud of what our college – and the whole FE sector – can give.”

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