Constructive partnership

November 1, 2018

Sunderland College and Gentoo are on a mission to develop the multi-skilled workforce of the future. North East Times hears how the collaboration is making a positive difference

Iain Nixon, executive director at Sunderland College, isn’t short of inspiring examples when asked to demonstrate the value of the ongoing partnership with housing association Gentoo. Whether pointing to the scores of students who benefit from meaningful work experience, describing the experienced industry professionals engaged in a programme of upskilling or explaining the progress made in revamping areas of Sunderland city centre, he’s spoilt for choice when it comes to promoting the good work underpinned by a collaboration critical to the Wearside economy.

In 2016 Sunderland College and Gentoo rubber- stamped a longstanding relationship by entering into a Strategic Partnership Agreement.

Iain explains: “It was about recognising that, as two organisations based in the city of Sunderland, we make a key contribution to the social and economic development of the city. One of the drivers was the opportunity to benefit the city as
a whole and all of its various partners – including Sunderland City Council – in realising their aspirations for the regeneration and future success of the city. By working in partnership we felt we could do more.”

They could. And they do. In 2018, that partnership is at the forefront of upskilling Gentoo’s maintenance teams, offering unique work-based opportunities to local students and apprentices and preparing the construction industry professionals of the future with the tools to thrive in a fast-changing sector.

“Upskilling their existing workforce has been a major focus as far as Gentoo is concerned,” adds Iain. “They manage homes across the North East and when you manage a large property portfolio you will always have maintenance issues. We help to train specialists in other disciplines in order to save time and costs.”

And it’s working. According to Alex Hammond, head of learning and development at Gentoo, the opportunities presented by the partnership with Sunderland College are already reaping tangible rewards.

“We’ve had around 140 people from our repairs and maintenance team complete the upskilling programme over the past 18 months,” he explains. “The feedback from them was excellent when they were asked about the practical workshops that the college provided. We are looking to expand the programme to around 80 other members of staff over the next year.”

Iain believes Sunderland College has never been better placed to help Gentoo achieve its staffing ambitions and meet its efficiency targets. However, he is equally excited at the myriad of opportunities an innovative partnership provides to students keen to broaden their career prospects.

“As a college, last year we had to generate 1500 work experience opportunities,” he adds. “In terms of supporting us with that, Gentoo have been great.

“We’re also part of a Department of Education pilot that’s looking at the value of extending work placements and implementing new T-Levels.

“T-Levels are the biggest ever overhaul of technical education with a view to delivering a skills revolution. They involve a 60-hour work placement rather than the traditional work experience model. It’s a major undertaking but once again Gentoo have been very supportive.

“As a result of the partnership, Sunderland College students gain an invaluable insight into work and the workplace. From the college’s point of view, it’s a challenge to prepare the students and from an employers’ point of view it involves a significant amount of work.

“We both need to look at how we can ensure that it’s a meaningful experience for the students. Gentoo understand that and a great example of the partnership working in practice was when we joined forces to help give Sunderland city centre a facelift.

“We mobilised our construction students to effectively give buildings – a shopfront, for instance – a bit of a facelift. Gentoo staff managed the projects as micro sites but we’d have our students doing the labouring work. That’s something that’s worked very well for the city and is in line with what we set out to do once formalised our strategic partnership.”

Both Sunderland College and Gentoo are acutely aware that the North East economy faces a number of fresh challenges associated with bridging the skills gap across the region.

Working together, they can predict industry trends and pre-empt specific needs – equipping the employees of the future with the right tools at the right time.

“If you take the construction sector as an example, we are already talking to Gentoo about how things will change during the next few years,” adds Iain.

“Between 2018 and 2022, the total construction output in the region is expected to decline – albeit decline by a very small percentage.

“However, growth is expected across a number of areas and the private housing and industrial sectors are expected to be very healthy.

“There will be an increasing demand for higher level skills with a particular need for professionals with skills in 3D printing and using drones. “The prefabs and offsite builds of the future will require different techniques and materials and new skills will be needed there. We are also looking at non-construction staff – the technical, IT and office-based staff needed to support the workers on the ground. And we need to consider senior executive and managerial roles at a time when logistics will come to the fore.

“The skills gap is widening because the skills needs are changing.”

Sunderland College and Gentoo will continue to work together to ensure the regional skills gap narrows. “Go back ten or 20 years and it’s clear that the partnership between education and business has always been critical,” concludes Iain. “However, I would argue it’s never been more critical.” Alex agrees. “It’s absolutely vital that we work closely with schools and colleges to ensure we have the right people, with the right skills to continue to take Gentoo forward in the future,” he adds.

“Sunderland College is proactive in engaging with us to ensure its programmes meet our needs. Getting out into the education sector and talking to students about the variety of exciting career opportunities at Gentoo is also important in terms of attracting talent into the sector.”

Sunderland College
Photo: Iain Nixon (Sunderland College), Diane Carney (Gentoo), Alex Hammond (Gentoo) and two trainees

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