Employer engagement in education – six common mistakes

We help universities and colleges improve their relationships with business.

The work typically involves a mix of qualitative and quantitative research among existing business customers and the wider market, and consultancy to help make positive changes as a result.

In our work and the literature we’ve identified six common systemic mistakes that both colleges and universities make in managing their relationships with business.

We thought it might be helpful to highlight them here.

  1. Circumscribing the relationship (aka being shy)

A common thread that runs through every piece of research we have undertaken on this topic is the perception among a (sometimes significant) minority of respondents that the education institution in question is underplaying the relationship.

This can manifest itself, as it did during a study about higher skills in London, as colleges teaching construction students on day release over a number of years but failing (to the bafflement of the employers involved) to engage in a broader conversation about training needs, or outline what the colleges could offer in meeting current and future training needs that the companies may have.

Or, in a more recent study, engineering businesses hire college apprenticeships and want to sponsor lecturer CPD in order to improve the quality of teaching but are kept at arm’s length.

In the higher education sector, one of the best recent examples of this phenomenon was the reluctance of universities to reengage with research users as part of the Research Excellence Framework (as highlighted by the excellent RAND report).[1] Universities felt ‘embarrassed to approach people for evidence, particularly as it made our relations feel transactional’. Businesses, on the other hand, were typically very happy to talk about how they had put that research into practice.

  1. Applying recruitment marketing to business relationships

It’s so obvious as to be self-evident, but human resources directors don’t think or behave like students. They have very different needs, are influenced by different groups and use different communication channels. Yet we commonly see insufficient differentiation between student recruitment and business communication – B2B media strategies, for instance, that focus on general regional publications and eschew the specialist press that may well be an HR director’s first port of call when thinking of training. Or tonal problems, in which the educator focuses on the output benefits of training (such as individual competencies) rather than the outcomes for the business (such as the positive impact on productivity or profit, demonstrable through testimonial or case study).

  1. Making business engagement structurally incidental

In previous decades it was not uncommon for college and newer university employer engagement staff to be physically dislocated from the main campus – housed in a soulless business park somewhere down a motorway corridor.

Although those staff are much more likely to have been rehomed among faculties, where the cultural divide remains, the effects are the same.

If:

  • business engagement does not have a seat at the top table (physically and metaphorically)
  • the training arm brand is deliberately kept at a distance from that of the institution
  • engagement is sporadic and departmental rather than corporate

…then the institution will commonly:

  • fail to maximise on a heritage that is typically appealing to the business customer (who may well place value on the fact that you were established by a particular Guild, that you have been serving a community for over a hundred years or that you taught her grandfather).
  • be exposed to significant risk when it comes to knowledge transfer and sustainability of relationships (when the head of hospitality leaves for another university, college or training provider).
  • see teaching staff take their lead from the senior team and treat the business development team as a second-class ‘support’ function.
  1. Equating customer relationship management with a piece of software

“How many people there in your business development team?”
“Ten.”
“How many people do you employ?”
“785 FTE.”
“Do you have a CRM system?”
“Yes, it’s excellent”
“Who uses it to record business contact details, histories and prospects?”
“Just the business development team.”
Etc.

  1. Confusing LMI with business intelligence

A college or university would be very unlikely to favour broad-brush regional data about lecturers over the results of its own staff survey when using research to inform its HR strategy.

But something similar sometimes happens in employer engagement. While labour market information can be a superbly useful planning tool, particularly in the early stages of curriculum development, some institutions behave as if it is a viable proxy for talking directly to business about training needs.  It is not.

  1. Working against culture

Strong relationships with employers improve the relevance of curricula and propel students into jobs. They help diversify income and thus reduce an organisations’ dependency on the taxpayer.

But that doesn’t mean they will be important to staff.

If, as is common in both colleges and universities:

  • an organisations’ heritage and mission have been built around serving a particular community (of young or unemployed or incarcerated students, for instance)
  • teaching staff form the dominant coalition within that organisation
  • and employment contracts are commonly focused on what might be described as traditional teaching practice

…then it’s no surprise that attempts to shift the culture into an entrepreneurial gear fail.

To put it another way, if a workforce is motivated to get out of bed in the morning for a particular reason (as is the case for college staff, for instance, with remarkable homogeneity – 75% of whom go to work ‘to make a difference to people’s lives’) then trying to persuade them that they need to change their working practices in order to improve the bottom line for business is not going to work.

The challenge here is to:

  • make a persuasive case for change shaped around how professional employer engagement supports those things your workforce cares about (i.e. the students)

and/or

  • hire different people on different contracts to deliver employer engagement while identifying (and implementing)
    1. the basic behaviours required of the workforce as a whole to support that effort
    2. the central resource needed for professional, corporate (in the widest sense) communication and engagement.

[1] Manville, C et al (2014), Preparing impact submissions for REF 2014: An evaluation, RAND Corporation for HEFCE

 

Four findings from research on employers and apprenticeships

Over the summer we conducted three separate research projects for different clients on the subject of apprenticeships.

While each project was tailored to the client and included different elements – such as a major catchment area review in one and lead generation in another – they all included detailed qualitative research among (different types of) employers.

What I personally find most interesting are the similarities between projects. Here are four trends, and why we think they are important:

  1. Creating a typology of organisations most likely to take on apprentices is difficult – for a good reason

Pages 18 to 27 of  BIS research paper 204  from December 2014 provide a detailed profile of the types of apprenticeship employer; the paper also includes data on what employers will look like in the future (as does the UKCES Employer Perspectives Survey 2014). It is tempting for individual providers to think that their local or regional profile will match this national data.

That is very unlikely because:

  1. Individual catchment areas don’t typically mirror England in terms of industrial sectors and it is (the patterns of) these sectors that most heavily influence what apprenticeship provision looks like.
  2. When you are researching at a smaller scale it becomes quickly very clear that organisational culture, personal experiences of apprenticeships, the frequency of junior vacancies and preconceptions of how young people behave are as important as organisational structure when it comes to predicting propensity to take on an apprentice.

To put it another way, among supporters of apprentices there’s typically a commitment that extends beyond the practical. While (in our research and the literature) businesses are most commonly hiring apprentices in order to fill specific current or projected skills gaps (and generally not, by the way, in order to get hold of cheap labour) the decision-makers very often want to get involved because they or the wider business has an affinity with youth development or workforce diversity as social issues – and they believe apprenticeships are a positive force in this regard.

There are two reasons why we would argue that it is imperative providers understand this distinction. Firstly, it’s vital to understand how practical drivers for taking on an apprentice differ from the emotive in order to tailor marketing communications and your broader employer engagement. Ultimately people make decisions, not business units. Secondly, this passion that apprentice employers display provides a major opportunity for providers; which of these might volunteer to help improve your tutor CPD or provide equipment in kind in order to ensure their apprentices are getting the highest quality training?

  1. Apprentices (and providers) are ambassadors in more ways than you might think

We were particularly struck during all three projects by the extent to which the views of decision-makers were shaped by their previous experience of individual apprentices. This included businesses who had never employed an apprentice but whose HR directors, say, had worked in one who had. More surprising still was the influence of training provider sales teams and the frequency across all three projects in which employers said that their view of apprenticeships as a concept had been negatively affected by pushy, poorly-informed sales teams. In this respect, all providers are in this together and your competitors are shaping your reputation.

  1. Understanding the word does not mean businesses understand the concept

A simple view of Google trends will demonstrate the growth in public awareness of apprenticeships as a term. This does not necessarily translate into understanding in any detail. Confusion among businesses not currently employing apprentices (85% of organisations nationally) was widespread in our studies, with a particularly noticeable propensity to conflate apprenticeships and internships. Awareness of higher apprenticeships was markedly low and again this is borne out by the literature. There is obviously still much work to be done in this regard despite the very laudable efforts of Government, agencies and PR consultancies over the past decade. This point is related to our findings at #1 – if first-hand experience of an apprentice is a major driver of awareness and opinion and the vast majority of organisations do not yet employ an apprentice, it’s not much of a surprise.

  1. Population change as a short-term threat

There is a lot of talk in HE circles at the moment about the impact of the big drop in the youth population up to 2020 on university recruitment – the population of UK 18-year-olds is set to fall by around 80,000 (11%) by that time. There appears to be less noise in relation to apprenticeships but it’s just as big an issue in terms of under 19 and, later on, 19+ apprenticeship recruitment. If you are a college or training provider and not taking population change into account in your planning you’re probably making a big mistake.