Connecting business with education during Covid-19 – are we getting it right?

Education | South West
Dave Crew, Weston College.
Dave Crew, Weston College.

By Dave Crew – Head of Business Growth and Employer Engagement. 

I think it’s fair to say that Covid-19 has changed the world in the past few months, affecting people and families everywhere with tragic circumstances experienced by many. As employers, we have had to adapt our businesses, make important and sometimes difficult decisions to try and survive find their way through this pandemic.

As Head of Business Growth at Weston College, one of the largest further education colleges in the country with 30,000 annual enrolments, I have to say that the way our staff have responded has been inspiring.

Delivering over 4,000 online lectures during the first week of lockdown through our #MyVirtualCollege strategy has been amazing to see, helped by the approach to embracing digital technology through our digital agenda mobilised a few years ago.

We all now live on Microsoft Teams! A recent ‘virtual visit’ from the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister Gillian Keegan, who praised this approach, is evidence of the leadership of our Principal Dr Paul Phillips CBE, and his leadership board.

From an employer engagement and communications perspective, in March we quickly mobilised a strategy to focus on 3 areas:

Supporting learners
Supporting employers
Supporting community partners.

Keeping people engaged with our mission of creating brighter futures was at the heart of this approach.

Following lockdown, we mobilised a Virtual Business Forum of regional business leaders and business membership organisations including our Weston Chamber of Commerce, Somerset Chamber, the FSB and Business West, meeting online regularly with a collective commitment behind the importance of communication and collaboration. This forum has a collective business network of thousands of employers, proving our ability to bring people together as an anchor in our business community.

A personal dilemma for me has been when to communicate how we can help so many in such a fast-moving external environment. I always say it’s not always what you communicate, but when you provide that messaging that is important.

We decided to launch an online event series at 1pm every Wednesday called our Wednesday Working Lunch series. 10 themed events, every Wednesday lunchtime, working in partnership with our local chamber of commerce and enterprise agency, providing an opportunity to educate and collaborate. Guest speakers, polling and lively discussions have been interesting. We had over 160 people from across the country join our first session to discuss mental health. We have only delivered 3 of the 10 events and the combined registrations for the series has exceeded 700!

We must remember how important apprenticeships are to find and train new talent, and progress existing talent within our businesses. How many people will be asked to ‘step up’ in the coming months but are we, as employers, really supporting with robust training? Apprenticeships, especially with 95% of training fees funded for SMEs, can be part of business growth plans.

We’ve also seen a real surge in online digital learning after releasing 35 free online courses with mental health awareness being the most popular. Committing to study within your own home can be empowering which is probably why we’ve seen many on furlough access these courses.

I also think we’ll see an increase in start-ups or the smaller end of SMEs that will need an ‘extra pair of hands’ during Covid recovery which will see hundreds of our college learners support employers through voluntary industry placements alongside their course.

I have to recognise that employers have been a great source of advice for us. Our Industry Advisory Board members, each with a sector focus, have been brilliant in offering an honest, trusted opinion. We’ve also seen business leaders recording online guest lectures through our Virtual Guest Lecture Series, incredible considering other priorities at the moment.

We have a simple vision at Weston College – to create the best approach to employer engagement in the country. Covid-19 won’t stop us delivering that objective.

Connecting business through education during Covid-19. Are we getting it right? I’ll let you be the judge. Contact me at dave.crew@weston.ac.uk to let me know your thoughts.

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