Educational establishments, once the seat of learning for fresh-faced youngsters, are undergoing a dramatic change to meet the needs of business as Owen McAteer discovered.

PAUL GOUGH, head of commercial operations for Gateshead College, has said that the only way to grow is working with employers. It is a view shared by Natalie Davison, the vice-principal of Bishop Auckland College, which presently works with 250 employers and is looking to increase that figure.

Ms Davison, a former engineer, said: “There is still the perception that colleges sit in ivory towers and are not aware of what employers want.

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“But the training world has moved on and by working in close partnership with employers and really listening to their needs, we are able to respond quickly and on their terms.

“It’s only by working in partnership with them that you’re able to make the right contribution.

“We are employer-led – and that’s something colleges never used to be.

“We recognise that we are in a commercial environment and we have had to respond in a way that you would expect in a private sector environment by being flexible and developing relationships with businesses.”

Her college has recently had a £40m overhaul in order to meet this challenge, while Gateshead College has recently opened its £9.8m Skills Academy for Sustainable Manufacturing and Innovation (SASMI), adjoining Nissan’s Sunderland plant.

One of its initial tasks is preparing a workforce for the electric car revolution which will see the Japanese car firm open its battery plant at the site next year, before the Leaf starts rolling off the Sunderland production line in 2013.

But Mr Gough, who oversees SASMI, said the centre will also be used to train apprentices in low-carbon transport and will be a location for other renewable technology firms. Without a doubt you need partnerships between business and colleges, the only way to grow is working with employers and being employer-led,” he said.

“You cannot run a college now simply on how many 16 to 19-year-old students come through your door in September.

“We are working with Nissan, preparing their staff to work in the battery plant which is now built and going into operation next year, as well as giving unemployed adult learners the skills to work there.

“But it has to be a national and, indeed, international, centre going forward, so we are trying to bring others to be based here, such as a hydrogen research company, which is seen as important for the next generation of cars.

“There are a lot of low-carbon businesses out there and if they are interested in the wider low-carbon transport agenda this is the place to come.”

The overall £40m investment made by Bishop Auckland College is the biggest in its 50-year history.

As well as the £31.5m main campus in Woodhouse Lane, Bishop Auckland, the college has built an £8.5m Skills and Enterprise Centre in Spennymoor, which was opened by The Earl of Wessex in April.

The facilities offered by the college include a hair and beauty salon, a restaurant with a licensed bar, a social care area complete with hospital set-up, a theatre and a vehicle workshop.

The college is already working with businesses such as Warburtons, the NHS, Thorn Lighting and supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

But it wants to get the message across to other big firms in the region that it is geared towards the needs of employers and students with learning areas based on real-life working environments and featuring tutors that have considerable industry experience.

“I think that we are not what a lot of businesses expect,” says Ms Davison.

“Things have really moved on in further education.

“Only ten years ago, some colleges had two or three particular markets, such as post-16 and vocational education, and closed for the summer.

“In comparison, we spent the whole of last summer providing training for Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

“I also think one of the biggest changes has been in the level of customer care.

“Few people know, for example, that our pass rate for our Train to Gain results is in the top five per cent in the country.

“The resources that we have here are very specialised and we want to spread the word that we are here for big businesses such as Hitachi and ready to go.”

AS hundreds of businesses in the North-East look to capitalise on the major opportunities on offer with the construction of Hitachi’s factory in Newton Aycliffe, the college, which attended the recent open day for potential Hitachi suppliers, says it has the infrastructure and skills in place to meet the training needs of the rail firm as well as other big businesses in the region.

“There is a view that Hitachi will be all about manufacturing and engineering training, but there’s likely to be a whole range of training needs that will go along with that, from business administration to leadership training,” says Ms Davison.

“We do have a very good track record with engineering and manufacturing training but we also work with a number of strategic partners, such as South West Durham Training, to develop packages to specifically meet the needs of each employer.

“For example, we can deliver them on weekends or work around shift patterns.”

One of its clients, Thorn Lighting, in Spennymoor, has 26 of the college’s apprentices on its books undertaking Dual Awards (a combination of a technical certificate and NVQs in the workplace).

Thorn has also asked the college to design courses in the past through one of the college’s personal account managers, which are assigned to each business whenever they sign up for training with the aim of them responding to all of the employer’s needs.

Thorn, which employs about 700 workers, has provided lights for Wembley Stadium and Heathrow’s Terminal Five as well as schools, hospitals, supermarkets and factories.

Avril McKenna, the training co-ordinator at Thorn, said: “I’ve a really good relationship with the college and I just pick up the phone and tell them what I need.

“Last year, they put together a bespoke electrical competency course. We had an appraisal area in the factory that some of our designers and marketing people used to go in and they needed to be able to fit lights safely.

“The college came on site to do the training and assessments and the course was very specific.

“With our adult apprentices, we run three shift patterns and the college would even come in on the twilight shift to carry out their assessments if needed.

“They always make sure that the courses are exactly what you’re looking for which is vital for us because we don’t necessarily want an ‘off-the-shelf course’.”

With increased inward investment comes the opportunity to work with more businesses, such as companies involved in the £200m business and leisure development Durham Gate, on the former Black and Decker site, in Spennymoor.

“The developers are hoping to bring 2,000 jobs to Spennymoor and we’ll be ready to respond to those business’ training needs,” says Ms Davison.

“We are already sourcing apprentices for two major construction employers at the moment and we are working with the project people on site to identify further opportunities for our students.

To add to the mix, November will see the launch of Core, a multi-million pound manufacturing, engineering and product design vocational centre based at South- West Durham Training in Newton Aycliffe.

Funded by the Department for Education, Core is geared towards giving 14 to 19-year-olds vocational skills.

It intends to work with the engineering and manufacturing sectors.

And only last week Teesside University was cited in a report by the University Alliance, a group of 23 universities with close ties to industry, for the central role it is playing in the North-East economy.

Teesside University was recently named University of the Year for its engagement with business and its successes have included its involvement in the Digital City project to create a thriving cluster of digital and creative businesses in the Tees Valley.

Its aim has been to encourage graduates from the university, in Middlesbrough, to stay in the region, and develop their businesses here.

The initiative has already created hundreds of jobs and it emerged that in June the project is set to sever its financial links with the public sector and become a self-sufficient firm, run by Middlesbrough Council and the university, alongside leaders from the digital sector.

In addition, the university has been heavily involved in knowledge transfer partnerships, which allow small and medium-sized enterprises to benefit from graduates, which join the firms to tackle specific projects.

Teesside University’s vice-chancellor, Professor Graham Henderson, said: “This is an important report which provides very clear, practical, real-world examples of the valuable contribution that universities can make towards economic growth.”

Libby Hackett, director of University Alliance, said: “The evidence is clear, universities are no longer just part of the education system.

“They are central to the economic and social prosperity of our nation.”