One of the challenges of any growing economy is how to make the best use of the talent which the vocational education training (VET) system produces. In Northern Ireland there has been a long history of high quality education and VET solutions, however one of the biggest challenges for the regional economy was how to tackle underemployment. The challenge also specifically related to high levels of underemployment for recent graduates with Degrees and Masters Qualifications who could not find the right fit between their qualifications and the demands of employers.

The Ministry for Economy in Northern Ireland and the business development agency InvestNI worked together to develop a new pre-employment solution called the Assured Skills Programme to tackle the issue of graduate underemployment. The Government Agencies then commissioned Higher and Further Education providers to deliver bespoke Academy training programmes mainly to larger FDI companies. Belfast Metropolitan College, which is one of the largest VET Colleges in the UK with 32,000 enrolment annually, got involved in delivering the Assured Skills Academies which have won national awards in the UK in best practice for employer engagement (TES FE Awards for Employer Engagement 2015) and in 2014-15 produced the highest number of new jobs per employer investment for any region in the UK. (Source: UKTI Inward Investment Report 2014 to 2015)

The Assured Skills Academy approach is based on the following model: 

  • employers identify a particular skills requirement which is based on their growth or investment plans and these skills are not readily available in the labour market
  • the Ministry of Employment will then fund the development of a bespoke training programme through the VET college which is tailored to the needs of the employer
  • the college works alongside the employer to co-create the training solution and then recruits gradates and delivers a 10 to 15 week Academy for 20 participants;
  • the graduates acquire new skills and at the end of the Academy are given an interview for a job opportunity by the sponsoring company.

In the last two years Belfast Met has delivered 26 Assured Skills Academies, working with 468 graduates from across different academic disciplines and 93 per cent of these graduates have secured employment as a result of their participation. The real success of this innovative approach is in working with employers to develop a training programme which is specifically tailored to their immediate recruitment needs. The only obligation an employer has at the end of an Assured Skills Academy is to interview the participants. This approach provides an example of aligning the demands of employers for new skills alongside the supply of bespoke training from the College, linked closely to the funding from Government to underpin the investment.

Balancing the needs of the economy and supplying an economically relevant curriculum which meets the needs of employers is a constant challenge for VET Colleges across Europe. Given the pressures of public spending on education and vocational training, Colleges need to be more agile when it comes to connecting with employers and working to develop VET programmes which are responsive.

At a college level there is a need to develop more structured approaches to quality employer engagement in order to develop more economically relevant, demand driven curriculum solutions. A college needs to understand what the Government priorities are, engage with employers to tailor solutions to meet their demands based on a balance between Government priorities and business priorities. The pace of change around employer demands and the increasing level of sophistication around the knowledge based industries can create a situation where a college does not have the skills in house in the traditional teaching team. As such colleges are starting to seek appropriate part-time staff with industry experience, but with possibly less teaching experience to be able to respond quickly to fast changing demands. The process of gaining feedback from employers/customers on the delivery of VET training solutions, then provides a platform for ongoing development of the curriculum will full involvement of employers and sector skills bodies which represent specific sectors. 

In the current economic environment, it seems likely that VET Colleges in the future will have to embed these types of mechanisms to ensure active employer engagement in refreshing curriculum solutions on a more regular basis.