Jackie Galbraith is a vice principal at Ayrshire College where her responsibilities include employer engagement at a strategic level. Ayrshire College is a large regional college which supports 14,000 students each year. In this article Jackie describes the college's award-winning approach to engaging with employers.

Why it’s important for us to engage with employers

Ayrshire College is serious about employer engagement. Our portfolio of vocational qualifications is aligned to the needs of industry sectors important to Ayrshire and we play a critical role in the success of the region's economy.

Ayrshire is a region of great potential. It has a rich cultural heritage, stunning rural and coastal scenery, natural resources from land and sea, a proud industrial history and is home to past and present internationally recognised innovators. 

However, economic decline in traditional industries like coal mining has, over decades, led to the highest unemployment rates in Scotland and significant inequalities across the region. 

Our goals are to raise the aspirations of Ayrshire’s people, communities and employers,two inspire achievement in current and prospective students and increase opportunities for people and their communities. Critical to achieving our goals is our relationship with employers, whose current and future employees need the right skills to meet the region’s ambitions of increased productivity, competitiveness and business growth.

By increasing the number of businesses we work with we increase the number of opportunities for apprenticeships each year, the volume of employment opportunities for students and job seekers, and the range and uptake of training courses delivered to industry.

New Conversation, published by the UKCES in 2014, summarised the necessary ingredients for effective engagement between colleges and employers as follows:

  • First, it recommended that we need to agree that the primary purpose of a college is to contribute to its economic community. We do.
  • Second, it argued that college leaders need to develop new types of skills to succeed in strategic partnerships with employers. We have.
  • Third, it stressed that we need to be aware that the credibility of colleges with employers is tied up with what they offer. We agree.
  • Finally, employers need to get to know their local college and what it has to offer. Large numbers of employers already have.

How we engage with employers

Our Making Your Business Our Business interactive employer engagement strategy illustrates how we support employers by incorporating video interviews with businesses, links to key strategies, and blog posts.

Our offer to employers is that we will make their business our business by:

  • providing the right skills at the right time to help grow their company
  • involving them in evaluating our current courses and determining our future provision
  • offering industry standard courses delivered in environments reflective of their sector 
  • helping with workforce planning for current and future skills needs, including offering apprenticeships to develop their employees
  • supporting employers to recruit the right people. 

In return, we ask employers that they make our business their business by:

  • taking part in our evaluation and curriculum planning processes
  • offering work placements, volunteering opportunities and project work to our students
  • attending our careers events to raise awareness of their industry amongst students
  • sponsoring the college by donating equipment, sharing expertise and rewarding student excellence
  • helping us tackle gender stereotyping in career choices.

All senior staff and curriculum leaders at Ayrshire College are responsible for engaging with the local business community. To identify skills needs at a regional level, Ayrshire College works with the Ayrshire Economic Partnership, with employer organisations such as the Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses and industry-specific organisations like the Ayrshire Engineering Alliance. The college also supports the economy and skills boards of the three local authorities in the region, working with business growth advisers to support the skills needs of existing and new companies as well as those seeking to locate to Ayrshire.

How employers shape our curriculum

Excellent external engagement with employers, industry bodies and community organisations influences course design and creates opportunities for students and for validating college provision.

Opportunities for developments and validation at an industry sector level are taken forward at a range of college-led employer skills forums in areas such as aerospace, renewables and engineering. These forums comprise employers, college managers, sector skills councils, national skills and economic agencies and local authorities. 

Education Scotland, the national agency responsible for quality assurance in further education, said of Ayrshire College’s engagement with employers:

‘Employer forums and strong employer engagement across the engineering areas provides strong intelligence to inform programme planning and delivery. The College responds promptly to feedback from employers where programmes don’t exactly match their requirements, and generally provide solutions. Effective, regular communication with employers based on mutual respect and a strong commitment to employer engagement allows the college to share plans.’

Intelligence gained from our extensive engagement with employers and business organisations in Ayrshire, combined with analysis presented in the Regional Skills Assessment for Ayrshire and Skills Investment Plans for various industry sectors, shape the college’s curriculum delivery plan each year.

Ayrshire College have made huge efforts towards closing the skills gap that exists in vocational education. In this video the college talk us through some of the ways in which they have taken on this challenge, including developing specific vocational forums; with contributions from key sector managers within education, as well as the employers themselves, who both take time to discuss the benefits of integration.