Andrea Laczik

On July 1st and 2nd the Edge Foundation (@ukEdge) and Education and Employers (@Edu_Employers) hosted the 6th International Conference on Employer Engagement.

The theme of the event, ‘Preparing Young People for the Future’, was arguably more topical than any previous incarnation of the conference. We welcomed 99 speakers, held dozens of breakout sessions and numerous panel discussions. While these were too wide-ranging to capture in full, here’s a selection of the highlights!

Curriculum, qualifications and assessment

On day one, my co-Chair, Professor Prue Huddleston hosted a panel on employer engagement on the curriculum, qualifications and assessment.

Offering an awarding body’s perspective, Patrick Craven (Executive Director Policy & Stakeholder Partnership, City & Guilds) outlined how important employer engagement is for helping identify the necessary skills to train and validate in the context of Vocational Education and Training (VET).

He explained that, in his experience at City & Guilds, employers usually act as co-designers/consumers on curriculum and qualification design. They offer high-level subject matter expertise and validate qualifications according to industry competence benchmarks. On assessment, meanwhile, he said that employers are usually more involved with setting topics, acting as examiners and assessors.

While business engagement faces challenges, such as engaging regional employers, Patrick seemed optimistic about overcoming these. He predicted greater regional collaboration in future, with online working making it easier for smaller employers to get involved. A pandemic silver lining!

Next, Suzie Branch-Haddow (Vice Principal External Development, Birmingham Metropolitan College) outlined three approaches to employer engagement.

First, her team are excellent networkers. Teachers and tutors regularly attend regional economic events, learning about different sectors and determining how the college should respond to skills requirements.

Second, the college utilises employer engagement boards and round tables. These allow employers to assess and review programmes within the college, focusing on content, format and delivery models.

Finally, they emphasise live projects. These range from fashion students designing wedding dresses for local boutiques, to social impact projects for mulitnational firms. Covid has encouraged new creativity in live project design, Suzie explained.

The final speaker on this topic was Jennifer Coupland (Chief Executive, Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education). Established in 2017, IfATE develops apprenticeship standards, T Levels and other technical qualifications. As of June 2021, they’ve developed 618 new apprenticeships and 23 T levels, working with thousands of employers to identify training requirements across hundreds of occupations. Apprentices are now training in careers from nursing to engineering and law.

However, real innovation lies in crisis – to help 50K learners complete apprenticeships during lockdown, IfATE developed special apprenticeship flexibilities, such as allowing assessment to take place at an apprentice’s home. These are now informing more adaptive apprenticeships, tackling two of IfATE’s key problem areas: apprenticeship availability for SMEs (who often lack resources) and diversity and inclusion.

The Role of Employers in Skills Development

On day two, I chaired a panel on the role of employers in skills development.

Professor Ewart Keep (Emeritus Professor in Education, Training & Skills, Department of Education, University of Oxford) briefly described the history of UK government attempts to involve employers in the skills agenda, and why these have struggled to deliver desired outcomes.

Employers, he said, control the demand side of the labour market and are therefore critical to skills policy. However, they’re not a homogenous group, and often, only a select few voices are heard. He highlighted a contradiction. Many firms lack resources to offer placements or train new staff. Yet they also want young people with workplace experience.

Government response has been to lay responsibility for skills development on colleges and external training providers, or to beg (and bribe!) employers to do more. We have to think much harder, he argued, about how to involve employers and what structural forms that requires.

Professor Hubert Ertl (Vice President and Director of Research, German Federal Institute for Vocational Training, BIBB) offered an international perspective. German VET is reliant on the social partnership between state, education and industry. This is underpinned by a legal framework – industry is mandated to engage in training and apprenticeship design.

Rather than subsidies, state incentives include support for smaller companies to organise and provide training, as well as consortia allowing them to train collaboratively. Even in this highly acclaimed system, engaging SMEs can be challenging. Nevertheless, company-sponsored (and company-funded) training is considered the gold standard. An interesting contrast to the UK.

Lastly, Gert Rohrmann (Training and Development Manager, Siemens) provided the employer perspective.

In driving the skills and training agenda, Gert explained, business needs come first. This means developing talent, balancing diversity and inclusion, and identifying tomorrow’s needs. Siemens must create (or contribute to) training for emerging skills in areas like the green economy.

This involves reskilling existing staff and helping young people explore career paths. T Levels and apprenticeships offer new opportunities, he said, although the aim is always to cultivate young minds and existing talent. To influence practice, Siemens also engages with, for example, University Technical Colleges, Academies and training providers.

Dr Andrea Laczik is Head of Research at The Edge Foundation.

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