If I were to begin a conference review by saying “this year was our best conference yet”, would that sound like a terribly well-worn cliché? Very probably. Yet I think I’m going to have to do it anyway. This year was EMSI’s 3rd consecutive year at the AoC conference and it was without a doubt our best so far. What made it so good? A mixture of things really. Good speeches, helpful breakout sessions, a lot of familiar faces and many new ones visiting our stand, much excellent publicity throughout the event, some great prospects for the future, and above all a sense that we really are now beginning to be seen as an essential part of the FE sector. Oh and the food wasn’t bad too.
One of the main themes that came across throughout the conference was the continued call for the FE sector to better understand the needs of the economy at a local level. This was a point made by Matthew Hancock MP, Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, who reaffirmed the Government’s priority for college’s to meet local employer needs and focus on destinations and progression to further study. This approach was echoed by the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, Liam Byrne MP, and by Heather MacDonald, Chief Executive of The Sheffield College (an EMSI customer), who said, “Successful colleges need clear focus on local issues. They cannot be distracted by national fads that are not relevant to their locality”.
This was, you might say, music to my ears. Colleges better understanding the needs of their local economy? Colleges meeting the needs of local employers? Colleges focusing on getting their learners into occupations at the end of their courses? Sounds like any college thinking through how best to meet these challenges might be in need of some seriously good Labour Market Information for their locality to help them on their way.
EMSI Gets a Mention…or Two…or Even Three
Taking an exhibition stand at the conference was of huge value for us, but even if we hadn’t done so it seems we would have had a decent presence at the conference anyway. In her opening address, AoC President Michelle Sutton spoke about the need for those in the FE sector to improve the way they promote their value to key stakeholders, and of the necessity of colleges forming a key part of local decision making. During the course of her speech, she quoted the findings of our Economic Impact Study (EIS) for West Yorkshire as an example of how colleges can quantify their value effectively and use this to promote themselves to their region.
EMSI was also heavily mentioned in the breakout presentation held by Hull College, in which I participated. The title of the session, “How much does our college contribute financially to the local economy, and why is it so important to understand?” was very much based on the findings of the EIS we conducted for them earlier in the year. During the session, they were able to explain how they have used the report’s findings to drive a number of stakeholder initiatives, how the report is being used in student marketing and college promotion, and even how the results had helped support a visit to the college from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable MP. It was particularly pleasing to hear them tell the audience, “We’re not just a provider, we are a driver of economic activity in the region”, and also that, “Lobbying is a critical part of the job of senior management within a college now and the EIS gives us a good platform to lobby on”.
Our work with the West Yorkshire colleges was mentioned again in another breakout session attended by my colleague, Anthony Horne. In “Colleges working with Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) – a model of partnership”, the audience heard how the aggregate EIS we conducted for the region has helped drive the partnership and provided useful insight for the LEP. According to Neil McLean, Chair of Leeds City College and former Chair of Leeds City Region LEP, “Many businesses in the Leeds City Region are not clear about what colleges really do or their impact, but when they see the results of the Impact Study they cannot fail to take notice”.
All in all, I was thrilled to see how EMSI’s LMI and tools are really helping colleges throughout the country achieve great things. Long may it continue!
Sixth Form Colleges: Can We Help?
So far during EMSI’s relatively short time since establishing the UK-based team, we have focussed almost entirely on the FE sector. However, the nature of our LMI and the strength of our tools means that there are a good many other sectors out there that could potentially benefit from partnering with us. One such sector is 6th Form Colleges, and so it was with great interest that I attended the “Strategic issues for Sixth Form Colleges” session to learn more about the challenges and problems faced by these institutions. The session was very useful, and it seems that essentially 6th Form Colleges have many of the same issues as General FE colleges. Two of the biggest of these for which they often find challenge are the areas of preparing learners for employability and overcoming poor Information Advice and Guidance (IAG). I fully believe that EMSI have the data and the tools to really make a difference in this area, and so the session was useful to me in joining the dots between the problems and how we might be able to help. Watch this space…
The Great Hairdressing Debate
One of the most interesting sessions in the whole conference was a panel debate entitled “The hairdresser question: Do colleges train too many hairdressers for the labour market?” Such is the public perception that colleges do nothing else but churn out hairdressers by the thousands, that this is a perennial debates, but is it a fair reflection of what colleges do?
One of the main points to arise from the discussion centred on the issue of transferrable skills and much of this was driven by a Hairdressing Report prepared by EMSI for the AoC in advance of the event. One of the principal findings of the report was that although the numbers employed in hairdressing may well be in decline across the country, this does not necessarily mean that we are going to be left with loads of unemployed hairdressers fresh out of college.
The report notes that hairdressers learn a whole range of transferrable skills which can be used in a variety of other occupations. Based on the US research programme O*Net, we have matched the transferrable knowledge and skills needed for hairdressing with those needed in other occupations, ranking those with the closest transferrable skills. As the report argues, “…some of the most in demand occupations forecasted for 2013-18 are highly compatible with the skills required as a hairdresser or barber”. This point was backed up by a comment from a member of the audience who cited IBM’s graduate recruitment strategy which looks at transferrable skills and personal attributes rather than just qualifications. You can access EMSI’s report by clicking here.The other main points to come out of the discussion were that college leaders need to look more closely at economic data in order to drive economic development, and that there is by and large a lack of good careers information out there. EMSI is well geared to assist colleges in both these areas, and this was brought out by Dawn Ward, Chief Executive and Principal, Burton and South Derbyshire College, who mentioned Career Coach as a useful tool to close the gap that currently exists in careers information, providing her community with impartial information on the reality of the local labour market.
As for our stand, I was joined by my colleagues Anthony Horne and Amanda Smallman who lead EMSI’s work across the north and midlands respectively. It was great to see a good number of existing customers, to catch up with many old friends, and to meet many others who I hope will shortly become customers and friends. It was also good to hear the positive value EMSI’s tools are bringing to the sector, and I was genuinely excited to know that we are supporting a sector which is both innovative and fundamental to local economic development. I can hardly wait for us to build on the 70+ colleges we are already working with by helping other colleges to also benefit from our expertise.
There is always a sense of relief when a conference ends. Such events are usually hectic and often chaotic, both in terms of planning beforehand and in terms of actually being there. I tip my hat to those who organised the conference for the job they did in putting on such a great event. For EMSI, this was a hugely worthwhile event with a host of benefits. All being well, we hope to be there next year when we not only look forward to seeing some of you again, but also to having yet another “best conference ever”.