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‘Good work’ – FE must prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s work

The recently published review into modern working practices (Taylor Review, July 2017) is a timely wake-up call to those of us responsible for shaping the workplace and the workforce of the future. 

In the report describing the emergence of a complex landscape of job options; employment, casual, self-employment and even unpaid internships, author Matthew Taylor challenges us all to buy into the notion of creating ‘good work for all’; from wages to well-being, and protection to consultation.

Given the rise in the so-called “gig” economy, and alarming reports of Victorian conditions in some Midlands factories, I worry about our young people heading into ‘bad work’ - facing potential exploitation and insecurity due to a lack of choice, or experience. I believe FE should be leading the debate about what ‘good work’ might look like, especially in developing skills to cope with rapidly-changing employment models.

Taylor recommends that:

  • Everyone should feel they have realistically attainable ways to strengthen their prospects at work;
  • Individuals should also be able to develop their skills through “formal and informal learning” as well as “on the job and off the job activities.” 

If we are serious about change, then I’m advocating an educational revolution that puts creating good work at the heart of all it delivers, for both the student and the employer. Since taking up the post of CEO of the emerging Nottingham College, I have constantly spoken of Further Education as an agent for regeneration; one that can exist to generate growth in the local economy and a tangible improvement in the quality of life. Instead of sitting FE in an educational silo, we should be redefining our relationship with employers, as well as our curriculum commitment to students.

This call for transformation is mirrored in the recent FE Area Reviews which advocate a greater volume of higher and technical skills that meet employer needs, and for colleges to collaborate on the design and delivery of courses to address the local skills gap. But how do we do this when employer engagement has been the pursuit of the almost-impossible for many an educational institution, and when FE, HE and sixth forms compete closely for recruits and resources?

A sound starting point is for colleges to be strongly employer-governed, supported by a confident senior leadership team who understand both academic principles and the world of work. Setting the college ethos and benchmarks together, and involving employers, staff, Unions, and students at every stage, will keep ‘creating good work’ in everyone’s thoughts and actions. Add to this an externally-facing culture whereby staff and students get involved in projects beyond college walls, and we develop a more flexible, organic structure with fewer impenetrable boundaries.

I want to champion a more holistic approach to learning for tomorrow’s jobs. Whilst there will always be a requirement for technical skill, it is the person and their character which will determine just how well they cope once they leave college. With low rates of attainment and low levels of aspiration among young people we must be honest with them, describing the workplace as it is and setting realistic goals with them. For some this will mean teaching them how to spot opportunities for personal development even in the most routine of jobs. It will mean giving them the courage to question how they are treated at work, and to push for change. It will mean bringing out the entrepreneurial potential in some, and helping them to see the risks as well as the rewards of being their own boss. Transferable skills and a critical mindset will equip them to adjust to changing economic fortunes, especially in a post-Brexit Britain.

In summary, a college’s contribution to engendering ‘good work’ is to open income-generating possibility for self-starters, the self-employed and the SME workforce, and giving the growing army of gig workers the option to progress into secure and permanent employment. It also means generating and embedding good work practices with large employers by providing skilled workers to support sustained growth at the other end of the spectrum.

This is what we aim for in Nottingham, but we are realistic about the time and energy it takes to change hearts and minds. It requires a commitment from everyone involved to adopt the same open, transparent willingness to work for this higher purpose – that of developing a new model for Further Education. Only then can colleges, employers, and government work together to champion and influence the valuing of our workforce and their contribution to our economy – preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s work.

Want to discuss my ideas? Email john.vandeLaarschot@nottinghamcollege.ac.uk.