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Creating a skills environment fit for the next generation

Marrying skills provision with evolving workplace demands has long been a problematic union for business. But dynamic transformation is afoot, thanks to North East Institute of Technology. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Sharon Grant, the skills provider’s director; Alison Maynard, deputy principal at institute lead education partner New College Durham; and Darush Dodds, director of corporate affairs and social value at institute sector lead for construction Esh Group, to find out more.


Sharon Grant grips a laser scanner’s support arm, Alison Maynard mirroring her pose with the touch of an automatic level’s tripod leg.

Given North East Institute of Technology’s (NEIoT) hands-on approach to training, their tactility provides an appropriate precis.

But the meaning runs much deeper.

For in the centre of the shot, between institute director Sharon and New College Durham deputy principal Alison, smiles Esh Group’s Darush Dodds.

With education and industry standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the apparatus is now metaphoric of NEIoT’s place at the juncture of learning and the workplace, moreover its collaborative surveying of the STEM landscape to deliver step-change training.

Launched three years ago as a founding member of a flagship Government programme to put business at the centre of English technical curriculum development and delivery, NEIoT provides employer-focused, practical education across advanced manufacturing, engineering, construction and digital, via higher-level qualifications.

At its core is a network of further education colleges, higher education and business operators – which includes lead education partner New College Durham and lead construction partner Esh Group – that attunes training to existing skills shortages while identifying future workplace demands.

“We deal with what employers want,” says Sharon, “developing courses in collaboration with industry – rather than picking them off a shelf – to create a one-stop talent shop.”

Integral to NEIoT’s provision are its employer consultatory boards, which include a construction advisory group chaired by Darush.

Sharon says: “The employer voice is so important; it allows for discussion around skills shortages and associated recruitment frustrations, and helps identify ways to address future challenges, like the increased adoption of technology.

“It also ensures training matches the workplace; we’ve bought equipment through our employer voice, which we know is used by firms across the region.

“But learning isn’t just about academic knowledge, it’s about practical experience too.

“And by working with business, and combining our voices, we’re able to showcase the different educational routes into employment, in turn breaking down the concept that a student must study GCSEs, A-levels and a degree before finding work.”

Alison adds: “That is the beauty of NEIoT; it creates challenging dialogue around action to make students appointable.

“And that’s important, because if we’re not providing the best skills support, for both now and the future, we risk losing out to other parts of the UK and Europe.

“Retrofitting and modern methods of construction (MMC), for example, are major areas of focus at present, around which there is a lot of talk.

“But NEIoT is doing something about it, developing courses to help employers address the green skills agenda.”

Such focus, says Darush, will be fundamental to the growth of companies like Bowburn-based construction and built environment firm Esh Group.

“As an employer, we want colleges to provide young people with the right qualifications, attributes, skills and behaviours for jobs, both now and in the future,” says Darush, Esh Group’s director of corporate affairs and social value.

He says: “There is no point in teaching people about ‘x’ if we need ‘y’.

“And that’s why we jumped at the chance to become an NEIoT anchor partner and lead for the construction sector.

“As a company, we’ve long had a commitment to helping people into jobs, to training and upskilling them and to improving social mobility and industry perceptions.

“And this collaboration – which builds on existing relationships with New College Durham and the other further education partners – means we can look at additions to the curriculum we know are needed around areas like MMC, which is only going to grow over the coming years.”

He adds: “But NEIoT also provides us with the opportunity to shape further areas of the curriculum, like new apprenticeships.

“I want someone who can work in our social value team, for example, and there is great potential, through our place within NEIoT, to create the first social value apprenticeship in the country.”

The commitment to change will be further amplified by the September launch of a digital ambassadors programme, which Darush says will enliven learners’ journeys through the experiences of partner contractors, clients and consultants.

He adds: “It really motivates students when they see something applied in real-life.

“It could be a consultant showing how they designed a project in Revit software and made it in augmented reality, or a product donated for teaching.”

And such learning enhancement, says Alison, will be fundamental to NEIoT as it prepares to meet future skills needs. 

She adds: “We have our curriculum, but we know there remain gaps to fill as digital use increases, sectors change and others, like space, continue to grow.

“And we’re working with our strategic partners to look at the next five years, to ensure we maintain our progress.” 

LinkedIn: North East Institute of Technology

LinkedIn: Esh Group