The need for colleges to put employers at the heart of the organisation – to support progression, income diversification and impact on the economic community – has never been more topical. As we’ve been working across the country over the past year, we are often asked about the attributes of a successful employer-responsive college.

In general, the answer is Darwinian – it’s individual to that organisation, and very dependent on how they respond and thrive in their local and regional economic environment.

However, we have noticed that successful, employer-responsive providers do share common characteristics. For those colleges and providers success doesn’t just happen organically – its thought-through, planned and professionally executed.

The principles apply not just to work-based learning, but also to all curriculum areas, which are increasingly focused on delivering immediate or future employment and enterprise outcomes. Although times are straitened, we feel that the sector is on the cusp of the enormous change required to take its rightful place as the economic powerhouse of the future economy. We’ve seen some inspiring practice across the sector, generating real economic opportunities for all.

So below, is a (by no means exhaustive) list of what we believe characterises providers that meet the needs of the market, it’s learners and the wider community.

  1. Make it part of your strategy – Governors, Leaders, Managers.

Successful providers develop a stretching and achievable strategy and operational plan with key milestones and outcomes, with the Governing Body on board. This includes a clear vision of where you want to be – one that is in line with your overall college mission, providing a ‘golden thread’ that everyone can buy into – internally and externally. The employer-responsive vision and mission should be clearly articulated in as few words as possible, enabling all to understand what the organisation is there for.

  1. Create Accountability across the organisation – Targets, Objectives and KPIs.

Employer-responsiveness isn’t just the responsibility of the few – and if you measure it, you can manage it. Change will only happen if it’s included in your corporate and individual targets, and cascaded throughout the organisation. To put employers at the heart, all managers and staff should have objectives related to these goals (proportionate to their job role) and complementary to each other. Trust your staff to deliver and then verify it happens – as Tom Peters once said, ‘manage a tight ship on a loose rein’.

  1. Embrace (managed) Risk

Related to the point about freedom and responsibility above, nothing interesting ever happens without a degree of managed risk. Often we hear that lack of resources prevent diversification into new areas. As someone clever once said to me – “you need to drop something to pick something else up”. Create resources for the new by shedding the old – freeing up investment for the future. There are fewer windfall opportunities than ever in the sector, so business planning and strategy is essential to develop provision in a new direction. Empower staff to develop their own solutions within the framework of our strategy and vision.

  1. Develop and Recruit Professionals

Employer-responsiveness and commerciality requires distinct disciplines and skillsets. Skills in business and curriculum product development, relationship management, project management and commercial leadership are vital. As are complementary behaviours and attributes – developing outcomes-focused, flexible staff that can adapt and change as needed. You will already have staff with innate capabilities and experience that can be developed to meet the new agenda. However, there are risks in putting square pegs into round holes – for example, reducing potential redundancies in a shrinking area by shoehorning people into roles in expanding provision. As the market has matured, there are many available and experienced professionals who understand the intersection of business and education – and who understand that the values of business and education are not irreconcilable.

  1. Listen To The Market

Successful providers realise that everything they need to know to deliver and promote employer/employment-focused programmes is right in front of them. They understand and utilise LMI, execute professional product development processes and consult widely with their potential customers and stakeholders. Some providers have even put responsibility for market and curriculum planning in the hands of the Marketing or Business Development functions, supporting a curriculum that’s determined by the external environment and learner needs, not internal objectives. Using available LMI – for example, from excellent providers such as EMSI – helps to build a robust future curriculum.

We hope that gives some food for thought, and we’d welcome comments, feedback and discussion. These are challenging but exciting times, and we’re committed to supporting colleges and providers achieve this vision as essential drivers of future economic growth. Please visit us at for more information on what we do.