Jo Burgess, Teesside University’s Director of Professional Apprenticeships, tells Mike Hughes how their courses are keeping the region ahead of the skills challenge



Being successful isn’t easy.

When a region like this starts to find its new identity, the momentum can build so swiftly that it can outpace the supply of products and skills needed to fuel it.

Reinventing Teesside as a global centre of green fuels and renewable energy has turned an investment spotlight on us as a new cluster of industries has been drawn here, either as innovators bringing new technologies or startups and SMEs who know that their future is being carried on this wave of fresh ideas.

They bring their own tools and experience, but to grow as fast as they hoped, and for the region to make the most of what will soon seem like a narrow window of opportunity, we need an army of people with perfect skills.

So anchor institutions like Teesside University will play a key role, agile enough to respond to needs that might not even have existed a year or two ago.

What you need is someone like Jo Burgess to identify the pressure points, pull together the right response and evangelise the need to move fast and precisely.

Jo is part of the University’s Senior Management team as Director of Professional Apprenticeships, after joining from Innovate UK where she was responsible for directing public investment, shaping policy and leading cross-Government talent and skills initiatives.

Her role here signalled a continued commitment in the University’s ambitions for apprenticeship provision. Building on a strong reputation secured as an Ofsted Outstanding Apprenticeship provider, its Professional Apprenticeship offer is an increasingly popular route for learners to develop high-level skills for their chosen career.

The growing list of Professional Apprenticeships means allows learners to earn a salary and embark on a structured programme of learning and professional development, receiving academic support from the university and vocational support from their employers.

In her offices at the university – which used to be my offices at The Evening Gazette quite a few years ago - she told me:

“Teesside was one of the trailblazers who took the opportunity to develop degree level apprenticeships when they were first brought in around 2017. Then with the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy there was a real focus on the fantastic route they could provide for students and how that could meet the needs of industry and business.

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“We are now one of the biggest providers in the UK with more that 2,000 apprentices, accounting for almost one in ten learners at Teesside.

”What has been really special about that is that we have positioned growth in degree level apprenticeships as a strategic priority, which is very unusual in in the higher education sector.

“But we are a vocational university at heart and believe in offering opportunities for people to grow and prosper within their careers and for that to happen degree level apprenticeships are fundamental.

“Our work starts with the needs of industry, so any programme that we develop and decide to invest in is very much driven by what employers want in their workforce.

“So having good market intelligence from employers is absolutely the starting point in our development journey and we also work very much in partnership with the regional economic infrastructure through our networks and our business connections to really get under the skin of what is needed in terms of skills. Not just now, but in the future.”

The Northern Echo: The Teesside campusThe Teesside campus

With people like Jo on its team, Teesside University has become a fundamental part of the skills jigsaw as it moves into a highly influential position where it can guide and assist businesses in recruitment and talent retention.

But there is a much bigger role here than the provision of individual skills. This is about building a reputation for fast-track education solutions that will sit alongside regional growth areas such as green innovation and biotechnology as reasons to invest here. That means more companies, more jobs and more options for young people who want to stay here and build their careers.

“We are looking at the complexities of economic development, inward investment, what companies are moving to the region, what are their skills needs going to be, the direction of travel that we go in, investing in the right skills and the right apprenticeships,” said Jo.

“The amount of work we put into this – the intelligence and the links with industry - is a clear statement of how valuable we think it can be, not only for Teesside but for businesses around the UK who need talented people.”

“One of the first jobs I undertook when I joined the university was to really look at what our apprenticeship strategy needed to be. I believe that any apprenticeship that we develop is powered by research and innovation in a unique partnership of strategy, leadership, innovation, and understanding the skills needs now and in the future.

“Collaborating with industry in terms of curriculum development has been a really powerful part of that which has helped us to invest in key areas where we see significant demand, which might be very small to start with but where we see big potential for the future.

“I'm really proud to work here and be part of that.

The Northern Echo: Jo BurgessJo Burgess

“We celebrate the fact that we are a significant anchor institution in the community and that we can help provide opportunities for young people. To be able to do business within our footprint here on Teesside is significant, but we're also global in our outlook and we want to ensure that the region and our community benefits from that.

“Some of our apprenticeship programmes serve a very regional audience - quite rightly. The Local Skills Improvement Plans which are run through the North East Chamber of Commerce and other organisations have very clearly articulated what this region has in abundance and what it still needs. So we make sure that what we're doing meets those demands.

“In terms of the national and international space, there are many of our programmes where our work has a global reach and we will always make sure these programmes can be accessible to a much broader national audience.

“They're still funded through the employer’s Apprenticeship Levy or government co-investment, so it is a very domestic market for professional apprenticeships, but many of the companies that we work with are global in their outlook so once we start to build a relationship, we can develop opportunities that may provide skilled solutions for its broader workforce. We will always need to look at it in a very holistic way to make sure we don’t miss any chance to help them grow and develop their people.

“And as our campus also grows, we have become skilled ourselves in adapting to the changes new industries bring. The work we now do in places like our new Net Zero Industry Innovation Centre just amazes me. It is inspiring to think where we can go with that standard of research and translate it in a way where we can develop programmes for industries that will help them meet all opportunities coming down the line.”

She has perhaps found her true calling here, as if all the experience she has been accumulating at North Yorkshire County Council, the Leeds City Region LEP, York St John University and then Innovate UK was so that she could fit so neatly into this pivotal role. The University and Jo seem made for each other.

The person that matters most in the journey is the apprentice and the benefit they've brought to their company and to their own future

“For everybody involved in our Professional Apprenticeships you can just see how much it means to everybody, from our apprenticeship quality coaches, our our academics and the professional services team that are working with businesses,” she tells me.

“But the person that matters most in the journey is the apprentice and the benefit they've brought to their company and to their own future. We have had some incredible stories where it's really changed lives, such as the significant amounts of apprenticeships we have within the NHS.

“We deliver apprenticeships in nursing, for paramedics, in occupational therapy and physiotherapy and we know that we are such a critical partner for those employers where workforce and recruitment is such a challenging area. As a university we take that responsibility very seriously.

“It’s no mistake that I've worked in this space for a number of years because I've seen the impact it's delivered. People are being able to embark on life- changing career development.

“I've seen businesses that have been able to grow and scale because they've found the right courses here and have been able to attract and recruit talent, and I've seen how proud families are when sons and daughters, mums and dads walk across that stage to collect their degrees.

“ Upskilling staff always requires investment from a company, but the return is significant in terms of retaining those staff. It's a brilliant opportunity and I don’t think there is anything else quite like it.”