We have been fortunate enough to work alongside Sunderland College for some months, and we are delighted for their recent (and very well-deserved) AoC Beacon Award for College Engagement with Employers.

In our interview below, Iain Nixon, Executive Director, Commercial Activity, shares some great insights into how they stay competitive in a changing market, and how they have become one of the North-East’s top training providers.

  1. Congratulations on receiving the AOC Beacon Award for College Engagement with Employers. It would be great to get an insight into the secrets of your success. What have been the key components that have led Sunderland College to this prestigious award?


Our strategic and college-wide approach has allowed us to develop effective streams of working with employers and form close relationships with businesses across a range of industries.

This involves a sector-focused approach whereby a member of the senior leadership team takes strategic responsibility for a sector, supported by a member of the business development team.

We work closely with the employer to understand their strategy, plans and the challenges they face – particularly in regards to skills – and align our offer to meet their requirements. Our focus is always a relationship-based approach to sales and offering a quality service at a very high standard.

  1. The introduction of the Apprenticeship levy and Apprenticeship standards has made the employer market even more competitive. How have you adapted your approach with employers?


We implemented a two-year college-wide transition programme – essentially an organisational change programme – which, as a member of the senior leadership team, I have led to ensure we have been fully prepared for the reforms.

As part of this programme, we introduced an increasingly targeted and segmented approach to business development, including formulating sector growth plans and key account plans for levy paying organisations.

In addition, we have placed great importance on upskilling our own business development staff to enable them to respond to tendering opportunities with public and private sector employers.

  1. How important is it to have an employer focused culture across the whole organisation?


It is fundamentally important for the entire college to understand and implement strong employer relationships, and we have been very successful in embedding this culture into everything that we do.

Our engagement with employers is not just about increasing our Apprenticeship activity – central to our working practice is meeting the needs of employers through a range of solutions and that involves cross-departmental collaboration.

The further education sector is undergoing major changes, such as technical-based education reforms, and this also demands a close working relationship with employers to ensure we fully understand their needs and align our curriculum accordingly, as well as identifying high quality work placement opportunities for our students.

  1. What have been the key challenges you have faced over the past year and how have you overcome them?


The Government’s Apprenticeship reforms whereby the whole system has been transformed. The market has changed with employers paying and the products have changed, with the introduction of standards.

The transition programme we have implemented has played a vital role in helping us to overcome the challenges posed by the reforms and has ensured that the college was well positioned for the post-reforms world.

  1. From your experience what are employers looking for in providers?


I think the main factor for employers is working with someone who they can trust. We currently work with more than 600 employers and have strategic partnerships with eight of the largest organisations in the city of Sunderland, and the feedback we receive is very positive.

A trusted partner will deliver high quality programmes which meets, and exceeds, employers’ expectations. It’s also important to be honest and if there’s something that we can’t deliver, we will broker a link with an appropriate provider – this ensures our relationship is preserved and the element of trust is maintained.

  1. What impact has the award had on the employer engagement teams at Sunderland College?


It has been a great boost for the whole college and the full impact has yet to be realised. Within our employer engagement teams – specifically business development, Apprenticeship delivery and recruitment for Apprenticeships – winning this accolade has been a wonderful acknowledgment of their hard work, commitment and progressive approach to employer engagement.

I am fortunate to have a very driven and innovative team of people who work with me to deliver high quality and industry-standard training and recruitment programmes.